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School Board counsel’s fate in doubt as meeting is set

It has been no secret that Buffalo Board of Education general counsel Rashondra M. Martin has been a target for possible firing or demotion by the board majority since last year.

Now the board has scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. Wednesday “to address separation from employment and/or the appointment of particular individuals.”

While board members would not discuss who might be the focus of Wednesday’s discussions, Martin’s detractors have long accused her of incompetence, and her fate has been a subject of speculation.

At the same time, there has been a push to bring onboard Edward A. Betz, who was assistant corporation counsel for the City of Buffalo in 2010-11. Betz also was the campaign manager for Larry Quinn when he won an at-large School Board seat in 2014 and became part of the board majority.

Betz’s critics, in turn, have argued that he is not qualified for the school district position because he lacks experience in education law.

Complicating the matter is the fact that one nonboard source active in education circles said there could be a conflict of interest if board member Carl P. Paladino votes on any matter related to Martin’s employment because of a civil rights complaint that Martin has filed against him.

The complaint with the state Division of Human Rights was filed after a February 2015 board meeting in which Martin was asked for advice on a key matter of parliamentary procedure. Her response frustrated members of the board majority.

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

A vote from Paladino regarding Martin’s future, the source said, could appear to be retaliation against her for filing the complaint, which already had cost the district $25,800 in legal fees.

But without Paladino’s vote, the board could deadlock, 4-4, on any resolution regarding Martin.

As a result of filing her complaint, Martin no longer offers the board any advice regarding pending discrimination suits. This means that those cases must be sent to outside counsel, which costs the district extra money.

Her precarious status as chief legal counsel also is problematic, some board members have said, because of the intricacies surrounding state receivership law, which allows for the superintendent – and potentially an outside entity – to make changes that circumvent the teachers union contract, without board approval, at struggling schools.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia recently expanded Superintendent Kriner Cash’s ability to make changes, without approval of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, at 15 additional schools in receivership; Cash already had such authority at five schools.

But Buffalo’s use of the receivership law is expected to prompt a lawsuit from the BTF and New York State United Teachers, underscoring the importance on the district’s legal team.

Martin was appointed the district’s highest-ranking staff attorney by then-Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, making $127,500 annually, according to payroll records.

But Martin’s demotion or outright firing apparently has been in the making ever since Cash announced his Cabinet this past November. At that time, Martin was not listed on the new organization chart as general counsel.