State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia made the wrong decision in ousting Carl Paladino from the Buffalo Board of Education.
Removing – or retaining – Paladino is the job of Park District voters who have had their own rights yanked by this ruling. Paladino, an attorney, developer and former gubernatorial candidate, is an unpleasant and frequently irrational man, well known for outrageous statements and name-calling. But here’s the thing: He was elected, and democracy matters.
Elia succumbed to intense public pressure, and it is hard not to suspect that the makeup of the union-friendly Board of Regents has something to do with the outcome.
The reasoning presented for Paladino’s ouster rests on the claim that he violated policy when he revealed what occurred during an executive session regarding contract negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
Executive sessions are by law secret, but it is a law often flouted or abused by those whose intent is to conduct public business out of public view. Members of the School Board have been criticized – by Paladino and others – for calling what seems an excessive, if not self-serving, number of executive sessions. And Paladino is hardly alone in sharing information from those sessions, here or in just about any government in any municipality in any state.
Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold has vehemently defended the board. But the board’s penchant for secret meetings is troubling, and anyone who wants to share with the public what occurs behind closed doors should be encouraged. Not thrown off the board.
Moreover, Paladino revealed the executive session information on the teachers’ contract long after the contract was settled. Still, Elia determined he broke education law. And he did so by publicly disclosing “private information” from that session.
“The record demonstrates that respondent disclosed confidential information regarding collective negotiations under the Taylor Law, which he gained in the course of his participation as a board member in executive session,” according to a copy of the decision obtained by The Buffalo News, “and that his disclosures constituted a willful violation of law warranting his removal from office ...”
But let’s face it. This is really not why Paladino was kicked off the board. He’s off because of the vile, despicable, bigoted comments he made in December about then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Those comments sent a horrible message to Buffalo’s 34,000 schoolchildren. They merited, and received, condemnation from decent people around the country.
Board members – six of nine – first tried to oust him because of those comments but changed their minds based on their attorney’s advice, who told them doing so would infringe on Paladino’s right to free speech. The fact is, they were looking for a reason to dump him.
And Paladino baited them. His comments on the Obamas deserved public censure. They were vulgar, racially inflamed and indefensible. Action beyond that, though, belonged – and should still belong – to the district’s voters.
This entire episode has stained the reputation of the Buffalo Board of Education, Paladino and Elia, who caved in to pressures she should have withstood. Schoolchildren have had to stand by while adults brawled in a political playground of their own making.
Some will see this as Paladino finally getting his comeuppance. He’s not a sympathetic character. But Elia’s action in this case was both disappointing and wrong.