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Hearing underscores longstanding tension on Buffalo School Board

Since he was elected to the Buffalo School Board, Carl P. Paladino has cultivated more enemies than friends.

Now, he's using those foes' attempts to have him removed from office as a platform to air his grievances about the Buffalo schools, essentially shifting the spotlight off of himself and onto the many problems he's criticized since he was first elected.

That manifested in an intense questioning of School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold at a hearing that started Thursday in Albany, with Paladino's attorneys accusing her of conducting official business outside of the public eye and holding an illegal meeting that ultimately led to the petition to remove him.

Then on Friday, his attorneys continued that tack, examining the influence Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore has over the school system and pressing one board member on how much union support she received during the last election.

To most outsiders, the hearing is a highly unusual courtlike proceeding with a colorful and high-powered cast of characters, including a wealthy developer, former state attorney general, longstanding union leader and the state's top educator.

But to those more familiar with Buffalo politics, the hearing is just another day in an ongoing saga and underscores some of the deep-seated tensions dogging the Buffalo school system.

"It has highlighted the highly charged politics of the district and the forces that control the school board – none of which focus primarily on the education of children," said former School Board President James Sampson.

Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman reaffirmed in her testimony Friday that the original resolution seeking Paladino's removal for inflammatory comments followed years of brewing tensions, fueled by Paladino's frequent use of insults and racially charged commentary about his colleagues.

"This was for years of things that have happened," Belton-Cottman said of the original resolution approved after Paladino made offensive comments in Artvoice.

That petition was quickly replaced by one arguing that Paladino violated board policy when he disclosed confidential information discussed in executive session. The board members seeking his removal argue that his disclosure interfered with their ability to conduct business.

"Those actions impaired the board's ability to carry on its business," said Frank W. Miller, who is representing the board members seeking Paladino's removal. "The evidence will show he will continue to behave in such a way in the future."

Paladino's main defense is that those seeking his removal are retaliating against him for the comments he made late last year about President Obama and his wife, not disclosing confidential information.

"This petition is a phony petition," said former state attorney general Dennis Vacco, who is representing Paladino. "It is designed to cover the true intent of the majority board members to get Carl for his speech."

Paladino's attorneys have lodged several other key allegations against other members of the board, including that they routinely hold improper executive sessions and that they themselves released confidential information when they launched a press campaign publicizing the district's bargaining positions during teacher contract negotiations.

Whether those arguments outweigh the board majority's assertion that Paladino harmed the group's ability to do business when he disclosed confidential information is yet to be seen.

And with a few more days of testimony left, it's difficult to predict which way things could go.

Going into the hearing, most people suspected Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia would keep the attorneys narrowly focused on the issue at hand – whether Paladino violated board rules for executive session.

But it became clear Thursday that she would allow Paladino's team to venture into subjects such as how the board conducts its business and how it settled the contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

After a brutal questioning of Nevergold, his team quickly pivoted on Friday taking a much tamer tactic on the three board members who took the stand. His attorneys even declined to cross-examine board member Paulette Woods.

Which way the pendulum will swing heading into Monday is anyone's guess.

Monday's testimony is expected to include questioning of board member Hope Jay, who submitted the original resolution to have Paladino removed for the Artvoice comments.

Superintendent Kriner Cash will also take the stand before Paladino's attorneys begin calling their own witnesses.

It's unlikely Elia will issue a ruling this week, but is expected to do so fairly quickly after the conclusion of the hearing, which should be midweek.

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