Public officials made two good decisions Monday regarding Buffalo schools: First, a judge denied an effort by Carl Paladino to block the appointment of a board member and, second, the School Board unanimously appointed someone with the qualifications to serve admirably.
The question now is how Catherine Flanagan-Priore will use her new position as the Park District member of the Buffalo School Board. And, from a larger perspective, observers will be able to evaluate how much of a problem Paladino was on the board. Were his insults and provocations sufficient to stymie the board or does the board’s dysfunction lie deeper than that?
Flanagan-Priore, a pediatric psychologist at Women & Children’s Hospital, was chosen to fill the seat from which Paladino was evicted last month. New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia removed him for violating Board secrecy by divulging – long after the fact – details about contract negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Paladino is a disruptive and frequently negative force, but the decision was nevertheless a regrettable one, overruling voters for insufficient reasons.
Paladino is appealing the decision, which is why his attorney petitioned a court to prevent the School Board from naming someone to fill the seat from which he was ousted. But State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent-Panepinto – a former member of the Buffalo School Board – wasn’t buying it.
In balancing Paladino’s interests with those of Park District residents, she correctly ruled – as Elia did not – that those residents’ needs came first. If Paladino wins his appeal, that will surely create additional disruption, as attorney Dennis Vacco argued on his client’s behalf, but it’s also the lesser of evils.
With that settled, the board had the luxury of choosing among 15 potential candidates, including some former members. Facing a deadline of Sept. 17, the board voted 8-0 on Monday to appoint Flanagan-Priore to the Park District seat. At-large Board Member Larry Quinn was absent. Now it will be up to Flanagan-Priore to demonstrate that she was as solid a choice as she appears to be, and up to the board to demonstrate that, with Paladino gone, it can function in the interests of students.
That’s a key point, because the board majority often seems more interested in serving the interests of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Indeed, many in the community may believe – rightly or wrongly – that the board majority favored Flanagan-Priore feeling that she would be more likely to bend its way than someone like former Board Members Louis Petrucci or Donald Van Every.
Regardless, the new Park District member certainly has the qualifications to serve and to make a difference. Holding a doctorate in philosophy and counseling psychology from the University at Buffalo, Flanagan-Priore provides evaluations and support to children being treated in the hematology/oncology unit at Women & Children’s.
During last week’s public interview with the board, she cited the need to focus on early childhood literacy, raise high school graduation rates and try to bring charter school families back into the district. All are valuable goals, assuming that her method of luring back charter school families is not by diminishing charter schools, but by making the city’s traditional district schools too good to pass up.
Over many years of stressful times in the Buffalo School District, this one stands out. It’s unique, with the forced removal of a divisive board member. It puts pressure on both the board and Flanagan-Priore to step up and produce. But that’s also an opportunity, one that all of Buffalo can hope the board recognizes and puts to use.