As members of the new Buffalo School Board figure out how to work together as a governing body, some unusual alliances are forming around the first major issue before them.
The group’s first discussion about a proposed gender identity policy demonstrated how divided the board remains on the issue, with some members siding with those they disagree with on other topics.
Paulette Woods – one of three newcomers who helped upset the former board majority – has been critical of the policy, questioning whether it robs the majority of students of privacy to accommodate a relative few.
That puts her on the same side of the issue as Carl P. Paladino – and at odds with other board members she seemed aligned with during her campaign.
“I very much agree with him,” she said. “I can’t pass a policy that doesn’t respect 34,000 kids. That’s really the only goal I have. For every child’s rights to be respected.”
Meanwhile, newcomer Hope Jay traded notes and background material with Larry Quinn, while at the same time going head-to-head with Paladino about his assertion that the policy violates the rights of non-transgender students.
“They’re not a protected class, Carl,” she told him, referring to the groups that are protected under federal civil rights law.
How the board navigates the issue could set the political tone for the future, and even shape relationships among its members.
The positions taken on the policy also suggest the new board may not have a clearly formed majority, but rather individuals who will vote based on issues – rather than alliances.
“None of us take lightly what we’re about to do or what we have to do to be in compliance with the law,” said Vice President Sharon Belton-Cottman, chairwoman of the committee vetting the policy.
That would be a departure from recent years, when the board has been evenly split along ideological lines.
The rift became amplified when Paladino first came on the board in 2013 vowing to fire former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who enjoyed the support of the then-majority, a group that also maintained close ties with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
Then, in 2014, control of the board flipped to a majority that supported reforms such as charter schools and tougher accountability for teachers. Their stance on these unpopular issues ultimately fueled a well-orchestrated and successful effort to oust members aligned with the group.
Many believed the newcomers – who were all endorsed by the teachers union – would fall in line with those incumbents who had been previously aligned against the reform bloc.
But that may not be the case, and as the board moves forward on key issues – including teacher contract negotiations – its members’ stances and allegiances will become more apparent.
The board will continue its discussion of the gender identity policy in coming weeks, soliciting additional feedback from parents and the public.
The policy stemmed from the Obama administration’s directive that every school district in the country must allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that match the gender they identify with – not the one they are assigned at birth.
It is not clear, however, whether the administration’s directive will hold up in the courts, which have not definitely answered whether federal civil rights law protects transgender people.
Eleven states have filed legal challenges against the schools directive, and last month a federal judge in Texas ruled that the new mandate contradicts existing laws and regulatory policies.