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A lifelong educator, Elia schools high-power attorneys in Paladino case

ALBANY – State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is no stranger to the antics of the Buffalo School Board, and in her brief time as New York State's top educator has already conveyed she does not intend to tolerate any of its nonsense.

That's especially true on her own turf, where Buffalo School Board members descended Thursday and Friday for the start of the unprecedented hearing to remove Carl P. Paladino from his elected position.

Elia blocked off seven business days to hear in-person testimony in the first-of-its-kind hearing over whether Paladino violated board policy when he disclosed confidential information discussed in executive session.

Things seemed to be going off schedule when Paladino's defense team spent all day Thursday grilling School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold. So going into the second day, Elia indicated they would stay past 5 p.m. to catch up if needed.

By 3:30, attorneys from both sides had called all of the available witnesses and said they had no objections to leaving early and coming back Monday.

But Elia did.

"I have objections," Elia firmly told them. "The Department of Education has to run while we're doing this. We will make sure we run long days if we have to."

Attorneys from both sides scrambled to justify their early departure.

"It's just difficult because we have to fly witnesses," said Frank W. Miller, who is representing the board members seeking Paladino's removal.

"Life is difficult," Elia fired back at him.

"We still have to be prepared and make sure the people are here who need to be here," Elia said, adding that since they are starting late on Monday they will carry the hearings into the evening hours if necessary.

It was a flashback to Elia's first meeting with the board after becoming commissioner in 2015.

During that meeting, some members on both sides of the usually bickering board attempted to explain the district’s past failures. She rejected each attempt. The discussion largely focused on chronically struggling schools that had been identified for a state takeover if they don't show improvement.

“For whatever reason, the Buffalo school system with the School Board has not gotten its act together at those schools," she told them. “Rest assured, that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools.”

A few weeks later, she recommended the board hire Kriner Cash as superintendent.

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