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Paladino ousted from School Board, but it's not over yet

Carl P. Paladino is out as a member of the Buffalo Board of Education.

But don’t expect this School Board drama to be over just yet.

Many cheered the state education commissioner’s decision Thursday to remove Paladino from the School Board, but the Paladino camp quickly said it will resist.

His attorneys already started working on an appeal to State Supreme Court.

“Not surprisingly, he’s committed to the fight,” said Dennis C. Vacco, Paladino’s attorney. “He understands the options I gave him, and he picked the most aggressive of the options.”

After a prolonged public outcry, a formal petition to have him removed and a five-day hearing to decide his fate, Elia ended months of speculation when she ruled that Paladino’s actions warranted his removal from the board.

Elia's ruling to oust Paladino receives mostly praise

His inflammatory comments from December about former President Barack Obama and his wife started this public push for his ouster.

But that’s not the legal reason he was thrown off the board: Elia concluded that Paladino broke education and municipal law when he publicly disclosed private information from an executive session.

“He is out effective immediately,” said Frank W. Miller, the board’s attorney. “Justice has been delivered. The message sent now is that regardless of station in life no one is above the law.”

Paladino did not return a phone call and text message from The Buffalo News seeking comment.

But in an interview with WBEN Radio, Paladino again reiterated his argument that he was removed for disclosing information about the new teachers contract that been in the public domain for three months.

“Albany is Albany,” Paladino told the radio station, “and it’s not much different no matter what department you’re dealing with. Unfortunately, these people are very susceptible to politics and who is screaming the loudest, and they’re listening to the screamers here instead of listening to the people.”

Paladino’s opponents on the board  unsuccessfully tried to boot him off the board in the past, and he has tried to remove some of them. But a huge public backlash erupted last December when Paladino made racially charged comments about the Obamas.

Six of Paladino’s nine colleagues on the board moved to get rid of him.

The board majority first sought his removal for the comments published in Artvoice about the Obamas, but then quickly changed course on the advice of their attorney, who said that would be infringing on Paladino’s right to free speech.

Instead, the board majority argued that Paladino violated policy when in January he published information, also in Artvoice, about the new teachers' contract discussed privately in executive session. That contract was signed in October, and his team argued that much of what he disclosed was already public information.

He was trying to inform the public that the district could not afford the new teachers contract. Vacco called it a "budget busting" contract.

It all came to a head in June, when those involved gathered in Albany to testify before the education commissioner during what some called an unprecedented hearing.

In addition to pointing out that the information from the executive board meeting already was public, Paladino and his attorneys also accused other board members of routinely holding improper executive sessions and releasing confidential information when they launched a press campaign publicizing the district’s bargaining positions during teacher contract negotiations.

The board’s attorney remained solely focused on the argument that, by breaking the rules of executive session, Paladino broke education and municipal law and disrupted the business of the board. He said that would continue if Paladino were not stripped of his board seat.

In the end, Elia sided with the board majority.

Despite the public’s fury over the Obama comments – anti-Paladino demonstrations occurred routinely leading up to the hearing – the commissioner focused her decision narrowly on the argument of public disclosure of confidential information.

A board member or school officer may be removed from office when it is proven to the commissioner that there has been a “willful violation or neglect of duty under the Education Law,” Elia wrote.

“The record demonstrates that respondent disclosed confidential information regarding collective negotiations under the Taylor Law, which he gained in the course of his participation as a board member in executive session,” Elia wrote, “and that his disclosures constituted a willful violation of law warranting his removal from office...”

One by one, the commissioner dismissed Paladino’s arguments.

Elia said Paladino didn’t prove that this was done in retaliation by the board.

And she didn’t buy Paladino’s argument that he disclosed information to expose criminal and fraudulent behavior.

Elia cited testimony by Paladino during the hearing when asked if he was governed by the board’s policies.

“I’m governed by it to the extent that I don’t disagree with it,” he said during the hearing.

Paladino attorneys: "The punishment does not fit the crime."

The state Education Department pointed out Thursday that a person removed from “school district office shall be ineligible to appointment or election to any district office for a period of one year from the date of such removal.”

Elia, in her decision, also noted that Paladino is not entitled to reimbursement of his legal expenses by the school district because it brought the petition for his removal.

The commissioner dismissed three other petitions against him filed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation and its parent organization the New York State United Teachers; the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization and the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP; and the District Parent Coordinating Council, a parent group.

Those are now considered moot given her decision Thursday.

“It was a powerful decision,” Miller said. “The commissioner wrote a 33-page decision in which she went through and analyzed and knocked down all the various arguments he made.”

The decision was disappointing, Vacco said.

“It just strikes me as a lot of convoluted logic to get this result,” Vacco said. “As I said to her in the hearing, I thought it was abundantly clear in this case that this board of education is dysfunctional. If you remove Carl Paladino, you’ll remove an effective advocate for the taxpayers and the kids, but you won’t solve the dysfunctionality.”

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