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Taxpayers foot bill for Buffalo’s School Board’s costly legal battles

The disagreement and hostility among Buffalo School Board members is more than an unfortunate example of government infighting.

It’s an expensive one.

In 2013-14, taxpayers paid $442,000 to cover board lawsuits and legal fees. That was up by 47 percent from the year before, according to information from the district’s Finance Office.

A big chunk of that increase has resulted from internal disputes among board members and between board members and staff.

And the district has increased its budget for board legal fees in this past school year to $780,000.

“I think it’s a reflection of discord among board members,” said board President James M. Sampson, adding that the spike in spending reflects “the inability for the board to come together around a compelling vision of where the district should go.”

Increasingly, board members have resorted to using outside lawyers as expensive referees to resolve their disagreements, even though the school district employs three full-time staff attorneys at a cost of more than $300,000 a year. In some cases, board members also seek outside legal advice because they don’t trust the advice of their own lawyers.

School Board special counsel Karl W. Kristoff, for instance, used to appear on an intermittent basis at board meetings. Now, the Hodgson Russ partner is seen at every meeting, occasionally being asked to advise on matters as basic as parliamentary procedure.

Meanwhile, board member Carl P. Paladino’s tendency to be a lightning rod for controversy has translated into at least 10 costly legal disputes among board members and staff in the last two years. Paladino initiated three of the legal actions and was the target of more than half a dozen others.

Most of these challenges were unsuccessful. All three cases that Paladino brought against board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold were dismissed, and four legal matters from administrators accusing Paladino of wrongdoing also have been dismissed or otherwise gone nowhere. Four other cases are still pending.

Not all the legal costs incurred by the board involve specific cases. The fractured board often incurs legal fees simply because members want a third-party lawyer to resolve differences of opinion.

“The Board of Education is very assertive in its demands for information and data, individually and in groups,” said recently departed interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie. “It’s time-consuming, and it’s awkward for the staff to be employed in what essentially are policy discussions and governance disagreements among board members.”

Outside litigation also affects board legal fees. The $780,000 earmarked for this past school year also would cover legal filings against the board by outside parties, such as the costly suit over bus transportation filed by Charter School for Applied Technologies. It also would cover legal actions taken by the board against outside parties, such as investigations and mediation related to company management of the Joint Schools Construction Project.

But the increased use of outside lawyers to settle internal board issues has led critics to argue that money for education is being wasted on frivolous legal matters.

Ogilvie said he questions the priorities of board members when they talk about the lack of money for efforts such as smaller class sizes, physical education, literacy and athletic programs, but spend little time reflecting on the ever-increasing demands they make on outside lawyers who charge by the hour.

Sampson said the board needs to shift more of its legal costs to staff lawyers, but that requires a re-examination of the district’s current legal staff and whether the district’s Legal Department needs restructuring.

“That’ll be on the agenda for anybody coming in as superintendent,” he said.

Paladino’s name dominated the case list in documents received by The Buffalo News in response to a Freedom of Information Law request seeking costs for legal matters involving individual board members and current and former district administrators.

More than $100,000 in fees over the last two years are based on legal cases between Paladino and other board members or district staff. Aside from legal matters he initiated, he has been the target of a half-dozen legal complaints alleging race and gender discrimination, hostile work environment, defamation and union grievances.

At least two discrimination cases filed against him with the state Division of Human Rights by district administrators remain open and active.

The district’s highest-ranking staff attorney, Rashondra M. Martin, filed at least one complaint against Paladino. At a February board meeting, Martin was asked for advice on a key matter of parliamentary procedure. Her response frustrated board majority members.

“How can you be so ignorant?” Paladino asked her.

That prompted Martin to file a discrimination complaint against him and the board with the Division of Human Rights, outlining a series of comments Paladino made about her. That case has cost the district more than $25,800 so far in legal fees. Consequently, Martin no longer offers the board any advice regarding pending discrimination suits involving the board. This means that those cases must be sent to outside counsel, adding to the district’s costs.

All the administrators and district leaders who have taken legal action against Paladino are black women, but Paladino contends that none of the discrimination and defamation allegations against him are race-related and that he expects those cases to be found in his favor.

Two district-initiated investigations of discrimination claims made by Associate Superintendent Casandra Wright have been closed as baseless. Board members also have immunity under the law for many comments they may make in their official capacity as elected leaders.

Paladino’s comments that some administrators are “incompetent,” “ignorant,” “idiots” and “tools” have nothing to do with race or gender, he said, but are his assessment of their job performance.

“The word ‘ignorant’ has something to do with being racist or sexist?” he said.

He places the blame for the board’s rising legal fees squarely on members of the board minority bloc, saying that African-American board members have been urging African-American administrators whom he has criticized to take legal action against him.

“They brought on these costs to the district,” he said, “not me.”

Members of the board minority disagreed.

“That’s so stupid. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman. “These are professional people. They know their rights. They don’t need other people telling them what to do. They don’t want their names attached to this professionally. Professionally, they would not do this unless they felt there were no other recourses. Why would anyone establishing a professional career want their names maligned and associated with Carl Paladino? Shame on him.”

Two current or expected lawsuits against the board revolve around Yamilette Williams and Faith Morrison Alexander, high-ranking administrators hired by then-Superintendent Pamela C. Brown. Both women failed to gain proper in-state certifications. Paladino flagged that failure, and, based on extensive legal advice, the board unanimously fired both women in March 2014.

Two months later, the former administrators notified the district of their intention to sue for breach of contract and fraudulent hiring.

Williams filed her lawsuit two months ago, seeking $4 million in damages from the School Board, the district and individual board members and administrators. She seeks an additional $40 million in punitive damages from Paladino for alleged defamation.

Williams and Alexander are represented by Amherst-based lawyer Raymond P. Kot II, who said both administrators followed faulty advice that the district provided under Brown’s leadership and were punished for trusting that advice regarding what type of certification they needed. The district has filed a motion to dismiss the suit.

So far, the district has incurred $38,000 in costs to defend against the Williams and Alexander allegations.

The district also has incurred more than $32,800 to investigate and defend Paladino and the School Board against three discrimination grievances and complaints filed by Wright, the district’s associate superintendent in the Office of School Leadership. Though two internal investigations found these claims to be baseless, Wright has followed up with a complaint to the state Division of Human Rights alleging that Paladino “has engaged in a pattern of targeting African-American women for differential treatment.”

Paladino described these legal complaints as acts of desperation. “They continue to play the race card because they have no other intelligent or plausible argument on the issues,” he said.

Members of the board’s minority bloc say these legal filings are a response to Paladino’s behavior and unwillingness to heed the cautionary legal advice.

“He bullies people,” Belton-Cottman said, “and then he thinks people don’t have the right to fight back.”