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Racist flier sets off heated discussion at Buffalo School Board meeting

The flier attacks every member of the Buffalo Board of Education, casting them on opposite sides of a racial divide with references to the Ku Klux Klan and segregation.

It compares members of the all-white board majority to Southern politicians who supported racial segregation, calling them the Krazy Karl Klan.

It also calls the four black women in the board minority the “4 Sistas of Soul,” singing songs of being denied their freedom.

With similar brush strokes, the flier disparages other community leaders, referring to parent leader Sam Radford, who is black, as swinging from “monkey bars,” and noting the M&Tea Party Bank.

The flier started circulating via email and Facebook in the days before Wednesday’s meeting, and some board members said it was being distributed outside prior to the meeting.

No one has publicly taken credit for creating the racist flier, which touched off a heated exchange at Wednesday night’s School Board meeting, but the debate about it highlights the rapidly growing divide – and deep racial tensions – that continue to dominate the board and are perhaps becoming more acute in the community.

Racial tensions have long been a part of the political landscape of the Buffalo Public Schools, but this latest round comes at a time when the board faces close scrutiny at every level from local business leaders to the state Education Department and the governor, who has renewed his call for a mechanism to take over struggling urban districts and cited Buffalo as prime example. Those tensions have escalated since the May election that resulted in a new board majority and a minority bloc divided along lines that are both racial and ideological.

“It gives credence to the governor’s position that we really should have a serious discussion about having a receiver or going to mayoral control,” Radford said. “All the key players who are on the outside looking in are saying we’ve got to do something different. Clearly the governance structure is demonstrating that we have priorities other than the education of our children.”

As the board readies to make critical decisions about the district’s future, its members find themselves once again caught up in battles more focused on character attacks and mudslinging than the education of children.

In fact, prior to Wednesday’s public meeting, board members had a similar display of accusations and name-calling in front of a delegation of state Education Department leaders, who had come to town to answer questions and help the board finalize its plans for four of the district’s lowest-performing schools.

That included challenging the state’s charter school laws, and accusing state leaders of planting distinguished educator Judy Elliott in the district to spy on them.

“She embarrassed the hell out of us and insulted the state, which gives us money,” board member Carl Paladino said of his colleague Sharon Belton-Cottman in particular. “These guys are sitting there thinking ‘What’s going on here?’ ”

The state leaders were so astonished at that display by Buffalo board members that they offered to try to heal the wounds by organizing a retreat for the two sides. It is unclear whether the board will take them up on that offer.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the flier became the topic of a heated discussion, which evolved into a screaming match after board member Jay McCarthy called for the ethics committee to investigate Belton-Cottman, who acknowledged she forwarded the email to people in the community.

The flier reads as an invitation to a “Board of Education Circus Performance” and includes jabs at Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore and former state Education Commissioner John King. There are two versions of the flier, one that includes a slight to the women in the minority and one that does not.

The phrase “Witness ‘Sam The Rafter’ swing from his monkey bars!” appears inside a Star of David.

McCarthy and other board members called the flier racist hate mail, and said it was inappropriate for Belton-Cottman to forward it.

Belton-Cottman, meanwhile, questioned how its contents could be considered racist.

“It refers to Sam Radford as a monkey,” board member Larry Quinn responded. “This is a disgusting email.”

In subsequent emails and interviews, Belton-Cottman said she considered the flier to be satire.

“That particular piece of literature is saying that what’s happening in Buffalo is the same as what was happening in Alabama,” she said.

The debate went on for at about 30 minutes, with Belton-Cottman repeatedly cutting off other board members and ultimately engaging in a shouting match with Board President Jim Sampson.

“Stop it!” Sampson yelled out as Belton-Cottman shouted over her colleagues.

“You cannot stop me from having a discussion on this issue,” Belton-Cottman fired back.

Barbara Nevergold acknowledged the flier was offensive and should be investigated, but said she did not think Belton-Cottman should be held accountable for forwarding it.

Members of the board minority also compared this invitation to emails Carl Paladino acknowledged forwarding several years ago before he ran for governor and the School Board, and questioned why no one in the board majority ever raised similar concerns about his behavior. Paladino garnered national attention during his run for governor when it came out that he had circulated what some considered sexist and racist emails.

His correspondence since coming on the board has been considerably tamer, although Paladino still sends emails with references to “The Sisterhood” that some on the School Board and in the community find offensive.

For instance, in the weeks before the debate about the flier, Paladino engaged in an email exchange with civil rights expert Gary Orfield, blaming the district’s failing schools on the board’s “African-American majority” and former “African-American” superintendent.

“Also on (Nevergold’s) watch the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) sank into the abyss at the hand of an incompetent African American superintendent with no experience as a superintendent,” Paladino wrote. “She was hired by an African-American majority of the BOE at the time who were more interested in having a superintendent they could control and protecting their power over jobs and monies than they were concerned with the education of 34,000 kids.”

Belton-Cottman said that board members have received many similar emails from Paladino.

“We have a file full of emails from Carl Paladino calling us incompetent and all sorts of names,” she said.

“When we brought this to the executive committee, or the board, we were told by Karl Kristoff that the first amendment was still up and working well in this country,” she said, referring to the board’s attorney.

The division was seen again later in Wednesday’s meeting, when members of the board minority called for an attorney to weigh in on whether Paladino can vote on resolutions pertaining to charter schools, because his family’s company leases space to some.

Questions about whether Paladino has a conflict of interest have swirled since he joined the board in 2013, and more recently have been subject to a legal review by the board’s outside legal counsel.

Paladino maintains that he does not have a conflict of interest because he does not have a financial stake in the holding company that leases to the charter schools. He also maintains that the board minority’s interpretation of the policy conflicts with state law, and would only be relevant if he had a financial stake in the company.

Members of the board minority, however, raised the issue again on Wednesday, saying that the fact that Paladino’s children benefit still poses a conflict of interest for him to vote on resolutions related to charter schools. At one point during that debate, Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie told board member Theresa Harris-Tigg that they couldn’t keep asking the question until they get the answer they want.

“People are very concerned about any conflict of interest, especially as some of the things they read and see are so clear and out there,” Harris-Tigg later said. “They’re concerned about that and they ask questions about that. The concern is there. It’s our responsibility and duty to follow up on that.”

Ultimately, the renewed tensions raise questions among community members and leaders about the effectiveness of the board as it moves toward making key decisions for the district, including plans to revamp its most struggling schools and a search for a new superintendent.

“It’s a new level of distraction at a time we need to be focusing on other things,” said Radford, adding that he ignored the flier when it was brought to his attention. “When you go to that level of inflammatory material, that means someone doesn’t want you looking at something else. When it gets to that level, that means you’ve got to double down and focus on the issues that matter.”