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Sean Kirst: After Paladino, a different crisis burns for Buffalo schools

Sean Kirst

Sometimes there's a certain benefit in coming into a community from the outside. I'm a Western New Yorker by birth, but I haven't been around for the entire civic opera involving Carl Paladino, a guy I've never met.

I wasn't here when he made the remarks last year that triggered the motion toward his state-ordered ouster Thursday from the Buffalo School Board, the moment months ago when Paladino sent an email wishing a painful death upon then-President Barack Obama and saying that Michelle Obama – an African-American lawyer and the first lady – should be living with an ape, as a male, in Africa.

Even Dennis Vacco, Paladino's lawyer, described those remarks Thursday as "vile but constitutionally protected speech." When Paladino wrote those statements, I was in Syracuse. My first thought – after a kind of sickened disbelief – was hoping the rest of the nation did not permanently associate such ugly words with Buffalo. But as the husband of a teacher who has taught for years in city classrooms, it also seemed as if there was only one practical and moral resolution:

Despite all Paladino's denials – he described his words as a joke meant for a closed circle of friends, and that he did not intend to share that joke with Artvoice, a publication that sought his opinion – I could not imagine how any African-American parent …. or any parent who believes in tolerance, period … would want their children attending a school where a school board member, with a measure of control over the well-being of their kids, laid out such venom.

The problem is, Paladino – as his words and history indicate – is not exactly the kind of guy who thoughtfully backs away from community fury or governmental pressure. Other School Board members moved quickly to try and remove him for the comments, then thought better of mounting a challenge to free speech. Instead, they started a formal process based on a separate contention that Paladino had illegally spilled secrets from a closed-door session of the board.

Paladino dug in. He responded that the whole board is leaky, dysfunctional and ought to go, and he launched a federal lawsuit claiming the process was a sham. Activists and protesters routinely showed up at board meetings to call for his removal, and the train – horns wailing, cymbals crashing – rolled into Albany for a series of dramatic hearings in June that turned into a bruising alley fight on the nature and ethics of the board itself.

Finally, Thursday, a decision: State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia offered a 33-page ruling that maintained Paladino broke his oath and education law, and his actions warranted his removal.

MaryEllen Elia: Ruling that Carl Paladino broke his oath of office. (John Hickey/The Buffalo News)

That brought the newest wave of All-Carl theater, with the attention of much of Upstate New York riveted on the former candidate for governor. Vacco maintained Thursday that the timing of Elia's decision may have been unfairly linked to the furor over white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va. Vacco promised a court challenge to the Paladino ruling, although he said it may be a few days or more before it happens.

If so, we have this fleeting instant of peace, one short-lived breather from the tumult, which becomes a crucial moment for a separate civic reflection. I keep thinking of a 10-year-old kid I met a couple of months ago, a little guy sitting cross-legged with his classmates on a library floor at Waterfront Elementary School. I was there for a column on whether summer vacation means as much to children today as it did when I was a boy, and I asked what I thought was a wistful and communal question:

Did any of the children love to throw open their bedroom windows on warm nights, to listen to the sound of the breeze in the trees, to wake up to the sounds of birds in the morning?

This particular child shook his head, emphatically. No, he said. There were too many shootings and gunshots in his Buffalo neighborhood. He made a slamming motion with his arms, and he said he kept the bedroom window closed and locked at night, both to shut out the noise and to feel a little safer.

He was surrounded by rows of boys and girls. None of them seemed surprised by his remark.

The child's point was only reinforced this summer  in a piece written by two of my colleagues, Tiffany Lankes and Lou Michel. The centerpiece of the story was a pair of sentences that ought to be engraved on the civic conscience:

"At least six Buffalo schoolchildren have been slain in the past two years, and more than four dozen wounded. A third of middle- and high-schoolers have seen someone shot, stabbed or assaulted."

Think of it. While Paladino's words were an affront, an obscenity, those statistics are unbearable. In Buffalo, children are dying, and thousands more are being traumatized. Routinely. It is a tragedy of historic and heartbreaking dimension, engulfing families without the money or opportunity to flee. It cascades into generational damage, a cancer that poisons sprawling neighborhoods.

Beyond all else, it ought to be the one burning there-is-no-time-to-rest reality that dominates the focus of anyone who cares about greater Buffalo.

What Paladino wrote was grotesque, and for whatever conclusion you prefer – justifiably or through shaky and unrelated procedural gymnastics – he has been removed from his position, at least temporarily. Almost certainly, as Vacco promises, the show will soon resume, with Paladino holding forth noisily in court or somewhere else.

Still, for a moment, the drama is moving out of the schools, leaving time for a breath of clarity. For the last eight months or so, the theatrics involving Paladino have served as an ugly, blinding flare along the road, distracting us from the greatest challenge in this city.

By the measure of shootings, Buffalo is among the most violent cities in the nation, and the ones who are sinking beneath that weight are our children. So the greatest chance for transformation – the dream of moving past the bloodshed into the kind of the city we all want – lies in how well we nurture our youngest, most vulnerable citizens.

And what hope exists for them, amid such violence, except whatever hope education brings?

It is late August, when the sound of the cicadas rises in the trees, when the morning light takes on a different, golden shade. For many of us, in childhood, this was a time of joy and change. That ought to be an American birthright, and beyond the painful tumult caused by Paladino's words still awaits, unanswered, the defining question:

For our children – for our city – where do we go next with our schools?

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at or leave a comment below.

Dennis Vacco and his client, Carl Paladino, in June in Albany. (Mike Groll/Special to The Buffalo News)



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