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Loudmouths on the Buffalo School Board are running up enormous legal bills

What we have here is a metaphorical food fight – and an expensive one, at that. Members of the Buffalo School Board, hardly less juvenile than the youngest of the district’s students, seem to like nothing better than to insult one another and then to hire lawyers to sort it out.

The result, as News reporter Sandra Tan detailed in Tuesday’s editions, was a 47 percent increase in legal fees in 2013-14, to $442,000. A large part of that money was paid to outside lawyers, even though the board spends $300,000 a year for its own legal staff. And it gets worse: For the school year just ended, the board budgeted $780,000 for legal fees, a staggering increase of 76 percent. How many teachers could it hire for that money?

And most of the disputes have little or nothing to do with ensuring that Buffalo students get the educations to which New York’s Constitution entitles them. How do grown-ups get this way?

To no one’s surprise, board member Carl P. Paladino was mixed up in a disproportionate number of the complaints. His name was involved in at least 10 costly disputes, three filed by him and more than a half-dozen in which he was a target. And most of the legal maneuvers failed: money down the drain.

All three of Paladino’s suits against board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold failed. Four legal proceedings filed by administrators accusing Paladino of wrongdoing have also been dismissed or otherwise failed. Four cases remain pending.

The problem appears to begin with Paladino who, as board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman observed, is a bully. Insult and intimidation are favorite tactics. Clearly, they are the main drivers behind the legal complaints he filed against Nevergold.

But Paladino’s targets also reach too easily for the legal papers, as demonstrated by the four failed suits against him.

Perhaps there is a perverse strategy to this: Spend so much taxpayer money that disgusted voters will think twice about re-electing any of them. It would be an expensive approach, especially given that the board’s failure to improve the district substantially offers enough evidence of incompetence.

This, as much as anything else, justifies the recent efforts of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes to change the governing structure of the school district. That effort failed, and while we remain uncertain that a mayoral control system is best for Buffalo, it is flatly irresponsible not to consider any reasonable change in the face of this board’s chronic and expensive petulance.

Consider: Paladino’s public retort to an opinion by the board’s highest-ranking staff attorney: “How can you be so ignorant?”

Consider: Belton-Cottman’s reaction to Paladino’s opinion on the source of the district’s soaring legal costs: “That’s so stupid. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

This is how elected officials choose to run an enterprise whose annual budget approaches $1 billion? This is the example they want to set for thousands of Buffalo students whose futures they were elected to influence?

Fine. Forget for the moment that Buffalo has uncounted other loudmouths who could do just as poor a job at leading this district. But do they have to run to the lawyers every time they get in a snit?

It is too much, evidently, to expect these people to pause and maybe even think a little before they open their mouths, but let’s try to keep the insults on the playground. As former interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie pointedly observed, there are a lot better ways to spend $780,000.