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Hearing on whether to oust Paladino from school board begins

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

A hearing on whether former 2010 gubernatorial candidate and Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino should be thrown off of his city’s school board began in Albany Thursday at the state education department. Controversial comments made by Paladino about President and Mrs. Obama last December are not the subject of the hearing, but they nevertheless became an issue.

The hearing, convened by State Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia, began with the Attorney for the Buffalo school boards explaining why the board is asking state officials to remove Paladino from the board.

Board attorney Frank Miller says Paladino “betrayed” his oath of office when he widely disseminated to the media matters that were discussed in private executive sessions of the school board. The issues include details of teacher contract negotiations and some legal settlements.

Miller told the Commissioner that Paladino’s acts were a “calculated judgment” to further the Buffalo businessman’s own “political agenda”, and that Paladino believes he is a “law unto himself”. Miller argues that the board would be restored to a functioning governing body if only Paladino would go.

The charges are not about controversial remarks Paladino made to a local weekly newspaper, Artvoice, about President and Mrs. Obama that many found offensive and racist.

Paladino’s attorney is Dennis Vacco, a former New York State Attorney General.  Vacco, in laying out the defense, immediately addressed the remarks.  He said they were “low” and “unfortunate”, but he says the remarks were “constitutionally protected” free speech.  

No audio or video recording of the hearing is allowed, but Vacco spoke to reporters during a break in the proceedings.

“This is all a charade,” said Vacco. “And a subterfuge to get at Carl Paladino in retaliation for his intemperate remarks that he made.”

Vacco, in the hearing, said Paladino felt he had a duty to the public to disclose what was said in the executive sessions because they pertained to a union contract proposal that could be a “budget buster” for the district.  And he countercharged that the executive sessions themselves were illegal because they were improperly convened.

The first witness was Buffalo School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, who along with other board members, signed a petition to remove Paladino from the board. Nevergold testified that Paladino, at the time of the meetings, last fall, and early winter, never complained that the executive sessions weren’t following protocol. She also testified that Paladino never said in the meetings that he thought the teacher contract might be illegal, something Paladino claimed in interviews with the media.

The hearing was only sparsely attended, but one of those witnessing the events is New York State School Boards Executive Director Tim Kremer.

“We’re impartial as far as the outcome here,” said Kremer, who said he wants to see the process “done fairly”.

“And that both sides feel as if they’ve had their day in court, so to speak,” Kremer said. “And that a decision is made that is legitimate and well-founded.”

Kremer says holding a lengthy hearing on whether to remove a local school board member is “unprecedented”. But he says Paladino has become a “lightning rod”.  

The hearing is expected to last several days. Commissioner Elia will then issue a written judgment on whether Paladino should be removed from the board or can stay. Regardless of their decision, Paladino has vowed to file a federal lawsuit on the grounds that his right to free speech was violated. 

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