Just when you thought things on the Buffalo Board of Education were starting to calm down, they suddenly got interesting again with the abrupt resignation of Catherine Flanagan-Priore nine months after being picked to replace Carl P. Paladino.
Priore’s resignation Wednesday, in protest over the school district’s handling of a new nursing contract and what she described as a lack of transparency, sets the stage for the School Board to select a new Park District board member by June 16.
Flanagan-Priore gave a prepared letter of resignation to Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold following Wednesday night’s contentious board meeting, part of the fallout over Kaleida Health being disqualified for the district’s new nursing contract.
The School Board agreed Wednesday to a three-year contract with a nursing agency that will replace Kaleida, whose nurses have been in the schools for the past 13 years. Kaleida was disqualified as a bidder because it submitted its proposal 16 minutes late.
Flanagan-Priore, a child psychologist, is an employee of Kaleida and had recused herself from involvement on the nursing contract.
But she resigned in protest because she didn’t like the way the issue was handled by the school district, which had been facing mounting pressure over the past couple of weeks from parents who wanted to retain Kaleida’s longtime pediatric nurses.
"I cannot ignore that it seems the district is working hard to control the flow of information and in some cases limit the voices of parents and community members," Flanagan-Priore wrote in her resignation letter.
She read her resignation for the media on Thursday outside Oishei Children’s Hospital, where she also answered questions.
Flanagan-Priore felt there was a general lack of transparency on the part of the district and that attempts by parents and the community to get more information were thwarted. The district, for example, tried to quash a parent press conference about the nursing contract, Flanagan-Priore said, and the recommended bidder wasn’t listed on the initial board agenda that was posted last Friday.
"Whether it’s intentional or not, when it appears that an organization is attempting to limit citizen action and mute the voices of opposition, it raises questions as to what may be hiding beneath the surface," Flanagan-Priore wrote in her letter. "I cannot stand back and pretend that this is acceptable. It is counter to everything I believe about public service and community involvement."
School district officials on Thursday said there is a "cone of silence" around the bidding process so it can’t be influenced by people from the outside.
"I think she felt there should have been more transparency in the process and was very concerned that board members had not been contacted earlier and given the information we were subsequently asked to use to make a decision that really impacts not only children in the district, but also a number of people who are employed in the district," Nevergold said.
"I had a lot of the same concerns," continued Nevergold, who voted against the new contract. "I did not make my decision in terms of my vote because I necessarily sided with Kaleida or the other provider, but I felt there were a lot of questions, a lot of misrepresentations, a lot of misunderstandings, rumors – outright lies – that circulated around the issue of the new provider," Nevergold said. "That could have been put to rest had we had an opportunity to discuss a lot of the questions people were proposing."
The resignation took Nevergold and other School Board members by surprise.
"Absolutely," said board member Hope Jay. "She did not give any indication to me that she was planning to leave the board."
As a child psychologist, Flanagan-Priore provided a unique perspective on the board, Jay said.
"She reserved comment but when she did speak it was always intelligent and articulate and valuable to the discussion," Jay said. "I think she was a very valuable asset to the board and I’m very sad that she resigned."
Flanagan-Priore gave the letter to Nevergold at the conclusion of the regular board meeting and didn’t even go into executive session with the rest of the School Board, said board member Larry Quinn.
"We never saw her again," Quinn said.
Quinn said he was perplexed by the letter of resignation and Flanagan-Priore’s reasons for leaving.
"I don’t understand," Quinn said. "Do we all think the requests for proposals were handled in the best way? No. I don’t think any of us thought that."
He also thought her departure was disrespectful to the board members who chose her over 15 other potential candidates after Paladino’s ouster.
"It’s a tough job and you have to have the backbone to do the job," Quinn said, "and if you don’t you shouldn’t be on the board anyway."
Before her appointment, Paladino’s lawyers had asked a state court judge to prevent the board from filling the seat while Paladino appeals his ouster by the state education commissioner for revealing information from a board executive session. The judge declined, and Paladino’s appeal is still in the courts as the seat now becomes vacant again.
Flanagan-Priore’s resignation provided for plenty of speculation Thursday both inside and outside of the district.
"I think it’s unfortunate she handled her decision that way," said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. "It would have been better for parents for her to remain on the board and make her point. That’s where your voice matters. Resigning? What does that do?"
"I respect her decision," said Larry Scott, co-chair of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. "Do I wish she would have stayed on that board and fought for some of those things she believes in? Absolutely, but it’s not up to me to really judge."
Flanagan-Priore told The Buffalo News she consulted with friends and family about whether she was overreacting, but felt strongly about the issue and her decision.
She indicated there was nothing else leading up to this that caused her to resign.
"People would ask me all the time, ‘How is it on the board?’ and I would say, ‘Everyone is really nice to me,’ " she said. "I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t Carl Paladino."
"I didn’t have this horrifying experience," she said. "I felt my opinions were heard, although often times I didn’t feel I had a heck of lot to say, because I was learning and it’s a pretty steep learning curve."
Flanagan-Priore said it was an honor to serve on the board and she’ll look to help the community in another way.
The board has 30 days to appoint a new representative for the Park District, which encompasses South Buffalo. The replacement must be from the Park District and be approved by a majority of the remaining eight members on the board.
If the board does not fill the seat within 30 days, Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown has the authority to select a replacement, with confirmation from the Common Council. That must be done within a subsequent 30-day period.
Besides being a resident of the Park District for a year, applicants must have been a resident of Buffalo for at least three years. They also must be a U.S. citizen and have no felony convictions.
Applicants should send or deliver a letter of notification to: Buffalo Board of Education, Attn: Darren Brown, District Clerk, 801 City Hall, Buffalo, N.Y. 14202.