When MaryEllen Elia took over as state education commissioner, one of her first directives was to warn the Buffalo School Board to cut the crap or else.
Since then, she’s gotten an up-close-and-personal look at how high the board can pile it.
Elia’s public hearing on the effort to remove Board Member Carl Paladino exposed the dysfunction and disrespect for the public’s right to know what are hallmarks of this board.
And her disgust could only have been reinforced when, in its first meeting after having that curtain pulled back, the board made no pretense of reform despite the fact that the spotlight was still on. Instead, it devolved from dysfunction to farce during its annual reorganization meeting – largely due to the futile efforts of Paladino to oust the current leadership.
Put it all together, and it means perhaps too much attention has been focused on the effort to remove one board member for racist comments and violating executive session protocols, and not enough has been put on a separate petition asking Elia to take an even more drastic step: remove the entire School Board and start over.
Testimony at the hearing exposed the habitual disregard for open meetings laws that protect the public’s right to know. Instead, this board held executive sessions that were improperly called, veered into unallowable topics or that even excluded certain board members.
For the District Parent Coordinating Council representing students and parents who are the school system’s collateral damage, the public testimony revealed what they had suspected all along.
"They told on each other. They gave the commissioner all the information about what goes on behind closed doors ... and it’s not about children’s education," said Samuel L. Radford III, parent council president.
That last phrase is key, because public boards all over Western New York regularly ignore the state’s toothless open meetings laws. In fact, that’s one of the defenses raised by President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, who says the School Board hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary and operates on the advice of its attorneys, though she concedes those lawyers now will be more precise in drafting language for executive sessions.
But this is about more than dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." Comparisons with other governments aside, not every board has the responsibility of looking out for children, most of them poor and minority and who already have the odds stacked against them. And, as Radford notes, not every board wastes so many tax dollars by having members sue one another.
So now that the curtain has been pulled back, will an improved board emerge? Will the hearing, and what it revealed, be the catalyst to make this board start respecting the students and parents who count on it, regardless of what happens to Paladino?
It doesn’t sound like it, as Nevergold explains away every criticism. You can’t change unless you first acknowledge that something is wrong, and the reality is that the board had problems long before Paladino was elected, as reflected in graduation rates, suspension rates and myriad other data that, in fact, helped usher him in.
Radford doesn’t expect change, either.
"If they could do better, they probably would have done better (already)," he said. "The reason we had to go into receivership is because the board could not figure it out."
Nevergold is right that most of the board’s problems stem from "one or two individuals." She‘s also right that Paladino is a huge distraction. But it’s also true that a lot of the board’s problems predated his 2013 election.
With all nine seats up for grabs in 2019, Radford argues this is the perfect time for Elia to remove the entire board, turn things over to Superintendent Kriner Cash, and "hope voters do a better job" two years from now in picking a new board.
The parent group argues that the progress Cash has made proves the district can be turned around. Now imagine how much more he could do with board members focused on putting kids on a successful track instead of putting targets on each others backs.
If the other eight board members are smart, they would consider themselves warned. Removing an entire board is a drastic step – but so is continued infighting that wastes taxpayer money and students’ futures.
In holding the highly unusual public hearing on Paladino’s removal, Elia already has shown she is not afraid to take dramatic steps. That means if I were the rest of Buffalo’s board members, I wouldn’t keep pressing my luck.