ALBANY, N.Y. – When Carl Paladino appears in front of State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Thursday morning, he will earn the distinction of becoming the first sitting school board member in New York state history to be called to a removal hearing with the state’s top education official.
A removal itself wouldn't be unprecedented. Commissioners have stripped seats from elected board members about a dozen times over the past four decades, according to the legal counsel for the New York State School Boards Association. But an actual hearing before the commissioner – a courtroom-style event with witness testimony in a public forum – has never happened before, at least to the knowledge of the NYSSBA.
So how did we get here, to Albany, with a Buffalo School Board member, former gubernatorial candidate and honorary co-chair of Donald Trump’s state campaign suddenly forced to defend his conduct to the state education commissioner?
The answer is complicated, and it will only be sorted out through this week’s tricky legal battle at the State Education Department building on Washington Avenue. Commissioner Elia will need to weigh First Amendment rights to free speech against the mandated responsibilities of school board members. And she will need to consider whether Paladino willfully violated his duty as an elected official under Section 306 of state education law, which forms the basis of this petition from six fellow school board members to remove him from office.
One thing, however, is clear: This effort to remove Paladino really began two days before Christmas, when a certain article was published in the media outlet Artvoice.
How It Happened
On Dec. 23, Artvoice published an article titled, “What Do We Want For 2017?” It featured answers from well-known local figures, including Buffalo School Board member Carl Paladino. His first two “wishes” were as follows:
1. Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret, who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady cell mate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her.
2. Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.
The article sparked immediate calls for Paladino’s resignation, including from County Executive Mark Poloncarz, a Democrat.
Buffalo School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold called a press conference that day, denouncing Paladino’s remarks as “totally out of line and unacceptable.” A spokesperson for Donald Trump – at the time the President-elect – said “Carl’s comments were absolutely reprehensible, and they serve no place in our public discourse.”
Paladino did issue an apology, although he defended his remarks as “a little deprecating humor which America lost for a long time. Merry Christmas and tough luck if you don’t like my answer.”
Six days after Paladino’s comments became public in Artvoice, the school board called a special meeting to discuss a resolution demanding his resignation. According to the resolution, Paladino would need to resign within 24 hours, or else the board would begin the petition process through the state education commissioner to seek his removal from the board. On Jan. 4, the board began the formal petitioning process.
On Jan. 5, Artvoice yet again published comments from Carl Paladino. This time, however, Paladino wrote a lengthy editorial about the recent teachers’ contract negotiations in the district. The teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools had just reached an agreement for their first new contract in more than a decade, but Paladino believed the deal was too costly. He ripped into the teachers’ union in his editorial.
At some point after those comments were published about the negotiations, legal counsel for the six school board members suggested they file a petition for removal based specifically on Paladino’s latest editorial— a totally separate issue with no relation to his comments about the Obamas.
Two weeks later, the six board members followed that advice and voted to approve a resolution that would file a removal petition based on the argument that Paladino “may have violated the confidentiality of one or more executive sessions and/or having engaged in other violations of his Oath of Office.” The board members believed Paladino should not have been legally allowed to disclose that information about contract negotiations in a media outlet.
Larry Quinn, an ally of Paladino on the school board, immediately criticized the six board members’ newest petition with the state, calling it a “joke.” He accused the board of trying to “get” Paladino by using the teachers’ contract issue as their legal argument.
Paladino and his attorney, Dennis Vacco, made similar claims in a federal lawsuit against the six school board members and the district.
Paladino accuses them of retaliating against him and violating his right to free speech under the First Amendment. According to the lawsuit, Paladino believes the public had a right to know about the teachers’ contract negotiations, and he also believes the board members are using that editorial against him because they’re simply upset about his previous comments regarding the First Family.
Expect similar arguments to play out when the removal hearing begins at 9 a.m. Thursday. The attorney for the six school board members seeking Paladino's removal said he expects 12 witnesses to be called between the two parties. The hearing may last into Friday or even next week.
Commissioner Elia will issue a ruling at a later date after reviewing the arguments.