New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is no stranger to Western New York politics.
But now she finds herself caught in the center of the region’s latest political controversy, with a growing chorus of citizens and public officials calling on her to remove Carl P. Paladino from the Buffalo School Board.
It would be a rare decision; removing an elected official from office is not something anyone takes lightly. And in this case, Elia – who grew up in Western New York and spent the first part of her career here – could be asked to make a ruling amid the politics of the state education system, including pressure from her bosses on the state Board of Regents.
“It’s politically based, so that makes it more difficult for her, as reprehensible as the remarks are,” said David C. Bloomfield, a professor of education policy and law at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Calls to remove Paladino from office have only grown louder since the alternative weekly Artvoice last week published comments he made saying he wished death by mad cow disease upon President Obama and wanted first lady Michelle Obama to be “let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”
On Tuesday, Paladino issued a written statement saying he "never intended to hurt the minority community, who I spent years trying to help out of the cycle of poverty in our inner cities,” but saying he would not step down.
He went on to say he wrote the comments while feeling emotionally distraught over remarks Obama made about the crisis in Aleppo, and did not intend to send them to Artvoice for publication.
Still, his statement offered little resolution to those pushing for his ouster.
There are more than 20,000 signatures on at least three online petitions calling for Paladino’s removal from the School Board. Assemblyman Sean Ryan (D-Buffalo) and the head of the local AFL-CIO both sent Elia letters asking her to exercise her authority to remove him from office. Those letters, however, do not count as official applications for his removal as outlined in state guidelines.
“The comments Mr. Paladino made are not just disrespectful and repulsive, they are an impediment to the proper functioning of the board,” Ryan wrote in his letter. “The board will be unable to carry out its duties to oversee the education of more than 34,000 students, with a member of the board causing constant chaos with his actions.”
The Buffalo Common Council unanimously called on Elia to research whether Paladino can be removed from the board.
The Buffalo School Board scheduled a meeting for Thursday at which members are expected to discuss how they plan to respond, which could include asking Elia to remove Paladino.
A spokeswoman for Elia said the commissioner could not comment on the situation because she may at some point be called on to make a decision in the matter.
"Despite what one’s personal feelings may be regarding Mr. Paladino’s remarks, Education Law stipulates the Commissioner’s impartial role in this matter," Emily DeSantis, a State Education Department spokeswoman, wrote in a statement. "Therefore, the Commissioner must follow the procedure required by law for the removal of school board members."
But Elia’s boss, Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa, issued a statement Friday condemning Paladino for his remarks, which she called unacceptable.
The local representative to the Board of Regents said Rosa sent the statement on behalf of all 17 members, and also asked the legal division at the State Education Department to explore what authority it has to act in the situation.
“Betty has spoken to (Elia) and has asked for some insight into legally what we can do and what we can’t,” said local Regent Catherine Fisher Collins. “We’re trying to make this right.”
When asked whether the Board of Regents had any authority to remove Paladino, Collins said it is her understanding only the commissioner can act.
“But she works on behalf of us anyway,” Collins added.
That puts Elia in the position of having to navigate the legalities of her authority as commissioner, while at the same time answering to a board apparently urging her to act.
Elia already finds herself in the awkward spot of reporting to a board whose makeup is significantly different than the one that hired her in 2015.
That board, led by former Chancellor Merryl Tisch, tended to be supportive of what’s known as the education reform movement. Elia came to them with a national reputation as a reformer and champion of accountability for schools and teachers.
But since then, many of those members have been replaced by ones who are critical of high stakes testing and penalties for schools that aren’t performing.
Those who follow state education politics have been carefully watching the relationship between Elia and the board, particularly on issues that pertain to standards, testing and accountability.
Now, the attention is shifting to how she might act on the Paladino matter.
“It’s totally consistent with how she’s conducted herself, which is being cautious so that she doesn’t offend any camp in this situation,” Bloomfield said. “She may be looking for legal grounds whether she can make a decision. But remembering that she’s appointed by the Board of Regents, this would be easy political capital for her if they're pushing her in that direction."
What’s more, those members of the Board of Regents are appointed by the State Legislature, broadening the political dynamics of the situation to include a group that often finds itself at odds with Paladino.
The grounds for the commissioner to remove a school board member are somewhat limited, but in the past have been interpreted to include behavior that interferes with the board’s ability to conduct business. That argument has been used in past attempts to have Paladino removed from office.
The commissioner would consider removal if someone filed an application with her office. At that point, the commissioner would decide whether to hold a hearing, which is required by state law prior to a school officer's removal. Only after the commissioner has an opportunity to review all of the facts of the case would she act on an application for removal.
Meanwhile, the Buffalo School Board has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday to discuss “board member conduct.” Board members have previously asked for legal advice regarding whether they can vote to remove a board member.
Last week, board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold said that she would not rule out the prospect of seeking Paladino’s removal.
“Silence is not permissible," Nevergold said. "Silence is agreement. Silence to this would be agreement to what Mr. Paladino has said … There’s a time and place for you to stand up and confront people who are saying things unjustly and bullying, or abusing their power.”