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Buffalo School Board minority wants own lawyer in fights with majority

The politics of the Buffalo School Board have already forced its members to pay for outside legal counsel to help referee the disagreements that are a regular part of how it does business. Now, the four members of the board minority bloc want to hire their own attorney to advise them, saying their interests have been marginalized by actions of the majority and ongoing legal conflicts involving Board Member Carl P. Paladino.

“We just don’t agree with a number of actions of the board and we need to have some legal assistance,” said Board Member Barbara Seals Nevergold, who requested the issue be discussed at Wednesday’s meeting. “We’re getting sued so frequently and the suits are personal. We need to be able to have legal advice in how to respond.”

It would be an unusual move for a nonpartisan body of public officials to have separate attorneys representing different members, and potentially offering competing opinions on issues. Larger partisan bodies, including the Erie County Legislature, do have separate attorneys representing the two major political parties. But that’s never been the case on the nine-member School Board, whose members have been split into two factions along racial and ideological lines.

“(Superintendent Kriner) Cash is committed to building a legal team that serves one board, and the whole board,” said Edward Betz, the district’s new general counsel.

Still, the minority bloc’s request underscores ongoing tensions among members of the board, who are widely known for a unique brand of divisiveness and infighting that has resulted in about a dozen legal challenges involving its members.

Members of the minority bloc place the blame for those lawsuits on Paladino, who bluntly speaks his mind regardless of who is offended. Although the minority bloc has asked for its own counsel before, this latest request comes about a month after the termination of Rashondra M. Martin, the former general counsel who was considered their ally and who is suing the board for discrimination because of a comment made by Paladino.

Paladino, for his part, says that while some of his colleagues accuse him of racking up legal costs, there have been a number of complaints filed against him by district staff members that were ultimately deemed unfounded. “(Nevergold) complains about $200,000 in legal fees, but she doesn’t acknowledge that I did not bring them on,” he said. “She and the minority group have encouraged people to bring actions against me that have all been unsuccessful to date. They started it all. Now they want to waste more money.”

In 2013-14, taxpayers paid $442,000 to cover board-related lawsuits and legal fees, up 47 percent from the previous year. The district then increased its budget for board legal fees to $780,000. Part of those costs were driven by outside attorneys whom – on top of the district’s full-time legal staff – board members have increasingly turned to for advice as tensions and lawsuits rack up.

For example, while special counsel Karl W. Kristoff used to occasionally show up at board meetings, the Hodgson Russ partner became a regular fixture – at $150 an hour for meetings, $247 an hour otherwise – after Martin sued the board, which then deemed it a conflict of interest for her to give them legal advice. The district was not able to immediately provide Kristoff’s hourly rate of pay, but officials said that, as of last week, he no longer works with the district.

Nevergold recognizes it is unlikely the board majority will support her proposal, but still wants to raise the issue publicly because of the impact on the people the board members represent.

“Although we are educated women, we are lay persons when relying on legal advice from attorneys who we are very uncomfortable with and question their commitment to us,” states an earlier memo on the topic. “We are elected officials and feel that we have been disrespected and disenfranchised. When we are disenfranchised, it disenfranchises our constituencies as well.”