Buffalo School Board President James Sampson tends to be quiet during board meetings, except when it comes to keeping board order. At Wednesday's board meeting, he was so irritated by audience members cheering and clapping for a stream of public critics that he repeatedly banged his gavel hard enough to drive nails and threatened to clear the audience from the room.
The day before that, he sent out an email rebuking board members over what he considered inappropriate and unprofessional exchanges in public and via email. His email came on the heels of a heated email exchange involving Carl Paladino and Barbara Nevergold, though Sampson said he was commenting on a broader pattern of board behavior.
"If I was a regular board member, I probably would not have said anything," he said, "but as a board president, I thought it was important to communicate how I thought we should communicate and why."
Sampson's email was prompted after a lawyer who works for Paladino attempted to contact the principal of Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School 37 on Paladino's behalf. The lawyer, who regularly serves as Paladino's assistant in sorting through his School Board correspondence, was attempting to follow up on a parent complaint and asked the School 37 principal whether she had banned the parent from coming to the school without permission because the parent was giving students information about how to opt out of state testing.
After several email exchanges, Board member Barbara Nevergold emailed Sampson and Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie to express her "astonishment and alarm" that Paladino would have one of his company lawyers doing board work on his behalf.
"I will not stay silent and allow this behavior to take place without notice from other Board members," she wrote. "This is wrong and should not be condoned by silence or tacit consent."
In response, Paladino fired off a paint-peeling email blasting Nevergold, other members of the board minority and the leadership at School 37. Trotting out words like "incompetence," "chicanery" and "dysfunctional" to describe both people and circumstances, he accused Nevergold and "the sisterhood" of being "irrelevant" and having a "racist" attitude.
"You are obviously more interested in enjoying the power of the office than doing anything positive for the kids," Paladino concluded. "You should resign."
Faced with this spew of unpleasantness, Sampson sent the following email out to all board members last week:
Over the past week there have been a number of interactions between board members, and at times staff and the public that I don’t believe represent the way we want to conduct ourselves as public officials. Most recently these interactions resulted in an email string between specific board members.
As members of the Buffalo Board of Education we have perhaps one of the most critical responsibilities of any group of elected officials in New York State. Not only do we have to guide the district as we fulfill the most sacred of responsibilities, that of insuring that all of Buffalo’s children have access to high quality educational opportunities, but also that our schools play a significant role in Buffalo’s long awaited renaissance.
There are certainly very sharp and public differences of how best to achieve this. But the one thing I would never question is the motives of what brings each board member to the table. In public and private ways we have all decided to be part of the process. We have all run for office, we have had to explain our thoughts on hundreds of occasions, we all have our supporters and we have all had to knock on doors on what seemed like the coldest of Buffalo days. We also all have in common a commitment to the children of this city and by extension this city. We all want children to have the opportunity to excel and the ability to capture what is best in our society and city.
Because of our un-paralleled joint responsibility and our divisions, I believe it is important that we treat each other with respect and dignity, especially in public discourse and communications. I am especially concerned when words and names are used that suggest, even by indirect inference, a racial and gender biases.