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Squabbling by School Board members keeps the meter running for lawyers

It’s easy to understand why members of the Buffalo School Board’s minority bloc are so frustrated. First of all, they’re in the minority and given the board’s divisions – which they help to create – their agenda is blocked.

Secondly, they have to contend with the insults of Carl Paladino, the board member who is committed to reform but who never learned how to work and play well with others. He exacerbates normal tensions and creates unnecessary new ones.

Nevertheless, the minority bloc’s wish to hire its own lawyer makes no sense. It is beyond unlikely to happen, but that its members even floated the idea betrays a lack of seriousness about education and a careless disregard for how they use public dollars.

Taxpayers are already on the hook for extra legal costs because of School Board members’ inability to conduct public business like adults. They shelled out $442,000 to cover board-related lawsuits and legal fees in 2013-14. That was a 47 percent increase from the previous year, but only a warmup for the next one, in which the district increased its budget for board legal fees to $780,000. Part of that budget was needed to cover the cost of the outside attorneys to whom board members have increasingly turned as their sandbox became ever more contentious.

Example: Special counsel Karl W. Kristoff recently became a regular fixture, charging $150 an hour to attend board meetings and $247 an hour for other work. The board turned to him after former general counsel Rashondra M. Martin sued the board for discrimination. The lawsuit created an obvious conflict, though it was one brought by yet another needless and obnoxious comment by Paladino. The board has since fired Martin but now also says that Kristoff is no longer working with the district.

None of this does anything to advance the critical task of improving education in Buffalo. Rather, it’s about adults who squabble instead of debate, who allow ego to override effort and who value the desperate need of students below their own insatiable need to dominate.

And taxpayers foot the bill.

In relation to an annual budget of $826 million, the extra legal costs don’t account for a lot. But the carelessness with which the board runs up these expenses is symbolic of the chronic chaos it inflicts on an underperforming school district. That is especially true given that the district must account for a budget deficit of $17 million.

The idea of hiring more outside counsel is preposterous to the point of irresponsible, and members of the minority bloc, all intelligent, surely know better. They should spend their time building relationships with majority bloc members who are open to it. Compromise is not impossible.

But those members aren’t alone in fomenting dysfunction on the board. Members of the majority bloc, especially Paladino, have their fingerprints all over this problem. That’s destructive of the district and of the reformist reason that prompted them to seek election to the board in the first place.

Maybe none of them really cares about any of this. Sometimes people dig into their holes so deep they no longer see the larger landscape. If that’s not the case with the Buffalo School Board, voters will be excused for their confusion.