Wednesday nights inside an old, cramped board room on the 8th floor of City Hall just haven’t been the same.
There’s still friction, bickering and the occasional shouting match that the public has grown accustomed to at meetings of the Buffalo Board of Education.
But the tension in the room has been far less palpable since Carl P. Paladino, outspoken and unpredictable, was removed from the School Board last August by the state education commissioner.
That doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last from Paladino.
“I’ve got to go in there and finish the job,” said the ousted board member and former gubernatorial candidate.
In fact, his appeal of the commissioner’s ruling has made its way to State Supreme Court in Albany and Paladino seems as determined to work his way back onto the School Board as he was when he was first thrown off.
“I think Carl is more determined,” said Dennis Vacco, Paladino’s attorney. “He remains committed to this at a time most other people would have shrugged their shoulders and walked away.”
The case made its first official appearance on the court docket Friday, when a judge was scheduled to be assigned and will determine how it will proceed.
“Typically, at this stage, the State Supreme Court does a fairly narrow review of the case,” said Frank Miller, the attorney representing the School Board. The court, he said, might typically “just look at it to see if there’s something there that would cause this case to be dismissed outright.”
Barring that, Miller said, “it transfers it up to the appellate division.”
A case on that path would probably result in a decision in six to nine months, Miller said, for a School Board term that’s up in 2019.
Vacco agreed this is a pit stop on the way to a higher court.
“We always felt that the commissioner made the wrong determination,” Vacco said. “We believe the Board of Education didn’t come into this with clean hands and most importantly, at the end of the day, the remedy here was overly extreme. To remove an elected official? It’s almost unprecedented.”
Miller, on the other hand, thinks the odds of Paladino winning on appeal are “very low.”
“You have to show the commissioner’s decision was irrational,” Miller said. “It’s anything but irrational, so that, in my judgement, would be a really tough row to hoe.”
The other issue is that the School Board already replaced Paladino with Catherine Flanagan-Priore in September, after a judge denied him a temporary restraining order to prevent the board from filling the Park District seat.
“That’s a real problem for Paladino, as well,” Miller said. “If that decision is overturned, how the hell does he get back on the board if there is someone sitting in his seat who has been legitimately appointed?”
Still blasting 'incompetence'
Six members of the School Board first sought Paladino’s removal for his inflammatory comments about then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama published in Artvoice in December 2016. They quickly changed course on the advice of their attorney who said that would be infringing on his right to free speech.
The board majority, instead, argued that Paladino violated policy when a month later he published confidential information discussed privately in executive session. State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia agreed and removed Paladino.
Despite his removal, Paladino said he still follows school district issues.
And during a brief interview, he quickly took aim at some of his favorite targets, including School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, the Buffalo Teachers Federation and Superintendent Kriner Cash.
“Atrocious” is what he called the recent dismissal of the school district’s lawsuit that he helped bring against LP Ciminelli for breach of contract.
“Obviously, the lawyers didn’t know how to do their job,” Paladino said.
He also vented about the $7.5 million the school district was forced to pay after an audit by the Internal Revenue Service.
“The corruption and the incompetence continues,” Paladino said of the Buffalo Public Schools. “Obscuring reality with phony tactics. Playing games with numbers – graduation rates, attendance records. It’s the same problems. They’re still there and they haven’t done a damn thing – and not about to a do a damn thing.”
Does he miss being on the School Board?
“It’s not like being away from friends,” Paladino said.
His opponents haven’t missed him, either.
A different focus
“Getting rid of Carl didn’t fix all the problems that exist in the district, but it certainly helped the board in the sense that you don’t have someone who is constantly being a disruption and not working cohesively with the rest of the board,” said Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, a frequent sparring partner with Paladino.
“The bullying has stopped,” Cottman said. “At the end of the day, people are more focused on what needs to be done and less of the theatrics.”
Tensions still flare up on the board. At a work session earlier this month, for example, Cottman got into a heated argument with West District Board Member Jennifer Mecozzi over how the board can be more efficient at meetings and stay on task.
But the fighting is not as pervasive, and doesn’t have the same undertone – racial or otherwise – that reverberated through the nine-member board when Paladino was on it, Nevergold said.
“I think he took the position that none of the other board members, except for a few of his allies, were credible or competent and that was expressed in very certain terms,” Nevergold said. “He did not respect us or see us as competent or capable of representing the children of the district. To him, our purpose was to represent ourselves.”
“The biggest difference,” said North District Board Member Hope Jay, “is that now we are able to focus on the issues facing the district, rather than focus on ‘What is Carl going to do or say next?’”
Accountability or polarization?
Paladino was outspoken on certain issues, but despite popular perception, he was not very loud at board meetings, said Quinn, one of Paladino’s allies on the board.
“Carl says offensive things that I don’t condone and he can be outrageous at times, but our job is not to worry about each other’s feelings or feelings of employees,” Quinn said. “Our job is to change the system of education for kids who desperately need us to do that.”
Quinn questioned the notion that things are better now.
“The question for me is always: ‘Are we educating children better now and has his absence created more accountability?'” Quinn said. “The answer to both is ‘No.’”
Nonetheless, observers of the School Board have noticed a difference since Paladino’s departure.
"It really was a circus." said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.
“Every School Board meeting would be basically a whole sideshow of rhetoric and attacks,” Radford said. “He just says inflammatory things without regard for sensitivity; very discourteous, disrespectful. It forced everybody into a defensive posture – and every School Board meeting there was something new.”
These days, the bickering and personality clashes still interfere, at times, but the attacks are not as explicit and personal as they once were, nor do they tend to carry over from meeting to meeting like they once did, said Larry Scott, co-chair of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization.
Alliances on the board are also a bit more blurry.
“It’s not a very clear-cut division where people stand,” Scott said, “and it’s less polarizing.”
But as for Paladino, he’s still not interested in making nice.
The board's "go along, get along" attitude, he said, "doesn't ring for me."
“There’s a lot of things to expose,” Paladino said.