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With ruling weeks away, Paladino calls wide-ranging hearing ‘gift’ to Buffalo

Those who follow the Buffalo School Board are well aware of the politics, infighting and racial tensions that typically underscore its interactions.

But the hearing to remove Carl P. Paladino from his elected position offered even some insiders a more raw glimpse into the behind the scenes workings of the board and school district.

There were no bounds when airing the board’s dirty laundry and missteps – revealed by Paladino’s attorneys – drawing even more attention to what most already consider a dysfunctional situation.

The hearing wrapped up Wednesday after both sides made closing statements before state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who will issue her ruling next month at the earliest.

After five days of often-grueling testimony, here is what was learned:

How the board rolls

Paladino’s team made a scathing case against those seeking his removal, alleging that the board regularly holds improper executive sessions and discusses behind closed doors things that should be handled in public.

His attorneys argued that School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold regularly fails to specifically disclose why the board is going into executive session, as required by law.

They also argued that once behind closed doors, the conversations often veer into topics that should be discussed in public under the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Paladino’s team specifically hammered Nevergold on whether those seeking his removal held an illegal meeting during which six board members – enough to constitute a quorum – decided informally to vote on a resolution seeking his ouster for disclosing confidential information.

They argued that board members were presented affidavits at that meeting on Jan. 17, a day before the board voted on the official resolution. They also noted that Paladino was served with papers notifying him of the removal effort just moments after the board approved it, suggesting they had decided in advance to pursue that course of action against the Park District member.

Paladino makes his case – for both sides

The hearing also brought up one-on-one side meetings – like coffee at Starbucks or dinner at Sinatra’s – between Superintendent Kriner Cash and Paladino or at-large member Larry Quinn, a Paladino ally, to iron out issues.

The hearing also revealed scathing email threads among board members battling back and forth with one another.

And it showed, according to Paladino lawyer Dennis C. Vacco, that no one is coming in with "clean hands," making reference to the meeting when board member Theresa A. Harris-Tigg continued to call Paladino – a staunch backer of President Trump – "orange Cheetos."

"There’s a concept in the law of unclean hands," said Vacco, a former state attorney general. "I mean, how do they violate every rule in the book? How do they violate their own Code of Conduct, the Open Meetings Law, then all of a sudden show up here, come here sanctimoniously claiming Carl is the bad guy?"

Cash and the BTF

Central to the hearing was negotiations for a new teacher contract, with those board members seeking Paladino’s removal saying he disclosed confidential information about the contract talks to the public.

In her testimony, Nevergold confirmed much of the information Paladino originally published in an Artvoice article, including that Cash asked the board to authorize an additional $10 million to settle the deal.

There had also been talk floating around of a possible strike.

Witnesses danced around the topic of whether Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore had ever threatened that teachers would go on strike, differing on whether Cash "panicked" and sought greater compensation for teachers to avoid one.

Rumore denied ever explicitly threatening a strike, and said he did not know why Cash told The Buffalo News he would "be ready" should the teachers go on one.

Attorney for the School Board Frank Miller speaks during closing arguments on Wednesday, June 27, 2017. (Mike Groll/Special to The News)

He did say he did not know how teachers would react if the contract was not settled by the time of an all-teachers meeting he called last fall.

"You never know what’s going to happen when you get people together," Rumore said. "I can’t control what the teachers want."

Paladino’s attorneys also questioned the union’s involvement in last May’s School Board elections, asking Cash whether he was concerned that some board members received substantial support from the union.

"Not until I would see how they behaved as board members," Cash responded.

Cash did allude to new tensions on the board during his testimony, saying that since the last election there is no clear majority or minority.

"I can’t get a clear sense of what’s the majority and what’s the minority," Cash said.

Elia in the middle

The Buffalo School Board has a long and contentious history with the State Education Department. Under then-Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., the district regularly failed to comply with state mandates and develop plans for turning around its struggling schools.

And Elia took a no-nonsense approach with the board when she became commissioner in 2015.

"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 Cash as superintendent.

Hearing underscores longstanding tension on Buffalo School Board

No matter how Elia rules on Paladino, it will be hard for either side to complain they didn’t get a fair shake.

Hundreds of petitions for removal have landed on the commissioner’s desk over the past quarter-century, and by all accounts, this five-day hearing in Albany listening to both sides make their arguments was quite unusual.

Paladino even publicly thanked Elia for giving his attorneys leeway in describing the dysfunction of the Buffalo School Board, which is at the heart of this case.

"It was an invaluable gift to the people of the City of Buffalo," Paladino said outside the hearing room, "and I so respect her for the way she carried that and allowed that kind of latitude."

Carl Paladino and his attorney Dennis Vacco leave the State Education Building after closing arguments on Wednesday, June 27, 2017. (Mike Groll/Special to The News)

Now what? And when?

Elia told both sides any post-hearing legal briefs need to be filed with her office by July 19, so no one should expect any ruling from her before then. Since the petition specifically asked for Paladino’s removal, she cannot come back with a lesser punishment, such as a suspension.

Frank W. Miller, the attorney representing the board members trying to remove Paladino, guessed that any written decision by the commissioner wouldn’t be issued until August.

Both sides agreed, however, that she has a difficult decision and the attorneys gave her plenty to ponder during their closing remarks on Wednesday.

How we got here: Key events in the Paladino case

Did Paladino break the laws he was bound by as a school board member by publicly releasing confidential information during a closed-door executive session?

Or is all of that simply an orchestrated ruse to get rid of Paladino one way or another and punish him for the inflammatory racial comments he made about former President Barack Obama and his wife?

Either way, Nevergold said it will be difficult for the board to function with Paladino moving forward.

"I don’t think so," she said outside the hearing room, "because for his testimony, he’s indicated that he doesn’t feel he’s bound by the policies related to executive session … He feels free to act on his own best beliefs and what he sees is in the interest of his constituents at any time."

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