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A Paladino Party, No Donations Please

Carl Paladino: "I have the utmost respect for Phil Rumore, but his day is gone."

It made sense for Carl Paladino to hold a rally for his campaign to “take our schools back” in a union hall on the wrong side of the Cazenovia Creek last Friday. After all, Paladino’s trademark color scheme—revealed by the orange and black balloons tied to a neat assemblage of pencils atop cocktail tables—offered an unsettling contrast with the green walls of the Ironworkers Local 6 hall, a contrast that told the whole maverick tale at play with all things Carl: He’s as idiosyncratic as he is abrasive, and he doesn’t care what you may think about it.

If any of the roughly 150 folks in attendance were bothered by the choice to hold a no-donation rally for Buffalo’s schools in West Seneca, planners threw them a bone in the form of free light beer in cans and sheet pies from no fewer than 13 South Buffalo pizzerias. A cover band that made the beginning of every song sound like “Don’t Stop Believin’” started rocking out (to zero applause during song breaks) and the Sabres game was about to start on the flat screen behind the bar. It was a good Friday night to be a dude in jeans and a ball cap, no matter which side of the creek the free pizza and beer was to be found.

A gentle and regal pit bull this writer assumed was Paladino’s dog Duke primed the crowd until around 6:30pm, when the man himself appeared to glad-hand and have pictures taken. A little later, it became apparent that the wages of free refreshments was a surly 30-minute stump talk on education.

Introduced by his wife and the song he wants to become the Buffalo Public Schools theme song (“Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty), Paladino began doleful and never really relented. Speaking of Boston Marathon suspect #1, Paladino created the following anecdotal segue: “Doctors said there were too many bullet holes to count. I think those police up there in Boston made a statement for America. It’s just as necessary for us to make a statement about these 30,000 kids in the Buffalo school system.”

For those who wonder why a millionaire many times over who perhaps came an inbox of offensive emails shy of becoming New York’s governor in 2010 would run to be one of nine members on the Board of Education, Paladino offered that he finally realized all of Buffalo’s problems was their fault.

“We’ve scared, we’ve frightened, the working class out of the City of Buffalo,” Paladino told the assembled crowd, which had a hard time matching an intensity of attention equal to Carl’s intensity of loathing.

“The problems that we suffer in this community today, the decay of 10,000 vacant buildings, an East Side that looks like Dresden after the war, crime on our streets, you can point to that Board of Education and say, that’s the prime mover of all of that. There’s the reason for that. And then you look at them, and I’ve done this for six years—I had been pointing my finger in different directions and finally I said no, it’s right there—it’s the policy setting Board of Education that is solely responsible for this mess.”

Paladino spent most of his time providing the reasoning for his basic policy talking points, which, on the surface, are all perfectly reasonable things: a clearly defined suspension policy, a return to neighborhood schools (as in his youth), a “charter office” in City Hall and the selling off of properties to charter schools, incorporation of a BOCES program, an enhanced athletics program, longer school days and years, contracts for teachers, and an improved mechanism to receive input from teachers “without fear of recrimination.”

He toned it down a bit on Buffalo Teacher’s Federation President Phil Rumore, whose ouster had initially been Paladino’s top priority, saying instead (directly after declaring in a union hall that he wasn’t “anti-union”), “I have the utmost respect for Phil Rumore, but his day is gone.” Paladino then doubled down: “[Rumore] wants to point at the homes and say, ‘Our problems are all in the homes.’ Well, the people in those homes are victims of the same dysfunctional educational system as their kids are.”

He drew his loudest applause from a small but vocal contingent of teachers when he insisted the teachers deserved a new contract, and proposed they could pay for it using funds created by the reduction in transportation costs upon a return to a neighborhood school model. (He quoted the daily cost of a school bus at $500, though this figure seems rather exaggerated compared to the 2010 contract on the BPS website.)

Paladino’s savviest observation was made on the Buffalo Public Schools’ new attempt to cook the stats a bit with respect to attendance records. A new feature of the “Infinite Campus” web application this past September was to have teachers take attendance in every individual class, with every student on the roster presumed present unless the teacher notes otherwise. Furthermore, if a student is marked present for only one class in a day, the day cannot be marked as an overall absence. Paladino insisted that a similar loophole was being utilized to improve the city’s dropout rate.

By the time Paladino was winding down and talking about “seed schools”—a boarding school situation for “at-risk” kids, something as costly, unclear, and ethically questionable as his gubernatorial proposal to set up work camps for welfare recipients—the clatter in the back of the room closest to the gratis beer and hockey was rising.

Carl concluded with a moment of silence to honor the memory of the eight-year-old victim of the Boston bombing, while somewhere in the back of the room the TV was showing Sabres’ goaltender Ryan Miller begin a messy breakup with the fan base.

“Won’t Back Down” blared again over the speakers, as Paladino, as if at the imagined gates of hell, stood his ground. The only thing missing was one last splash of orange and black confetti, to preemptively celebrate Paladino’s slam-dunk candidacy.

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