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Board Games: Carl Paladino and the Buffalo Public Schools


Anyone alert to cheap, easy symbolism at last week’s Buffalo Board of Education meeting in City Hall didn’t have to look very far, particularly if one was part of the overflow audience crammed into a small anteroom outside the board’s chamber. The TV monitor in the small room streamed black-and-white video of the meeting next door, but emitted no sound. A school district media technician fiddled with the set a few times and responded to complaints with apologetic frustration. So the 15-20 people who couldn’t get into the board room and couldn’t hear the proceedings only got more annoyed and tense.

Tension, annoyance, and dysfunction weren’t entirely absent from the board’s discussions and deliberations. (Your devoted correspondent was among the excluded, but he managed to wedge his way into the open doorway of the chamber, under the disapproving stare of a police officer.)

The board meeting was no food fight, but there was an undertone of rancor and dissension in the proceedings that now and then pushed to the surface. At one juncture, the customarily unflappable board president, Barbara Seals Nevergold, felt moved to tell board member Carl Paladino, as he repeated complaints about Superintendent Pamela Brown’s district administration reorganization plan, “I’ve had it!” A short while later, as he questioned Brown’s creation and filling of positions, she sternly told him he was improperly “getting into personnel matters.” At another point, when he protested, “I have the floor,” she exasperatedly responded, “You can have the floor until midnight!”

If Paladino demonstrated his ability to provoke the usually equitable board president, intentionally or not, his wasn’t the only dissonant influence at the meeting, only the most strident. The bulk of the meeting, before the members adjourned into a private executive session after about three and one-half hours, was devoted to Brown’s summary presentation of the eight-months-in-the-making, five-year strategic plan, which Paladino found objectionably vague and misleading, and to her report on the central office reorganization. His first complaint was that he hadn’t received a copy of Brown’s administrative restructuring chart, despite having requested it 45 days earlier. Brown replied that he was certainly entitled to the material, but she never said why he hadn’t been given it. (In a telephone interview on Monday, Paladino said he still hadn’t got it.)

Paladino fundamentally challenged the superintendent’s administration plan, charging, “You don’t have the authority to make policy,” referring to her remaking of executive positions, filling them, and shuffling people in and out of them. Brown’s position was that the previous board had authorized her to pursue her reorganization, but she and board member Florence Johnson, on the one hand, and Paladino on the other, disagreed about what constitutes the exercise of policy. Brown also contended that her plan would save $1 million, but Paladino sharply expressed skepticism and noted a lack of details. (The Buffalo News’ Sandra Tan reported that she had requested a copy of the financial calculations but hadn’t received it.)

It was unclear during the board meeting that members understood all of Brown’s changes to titles and responsibilities. In one move, she had abolished the chief academic officer position and established a Chief of Curricular Assessment and Instruction. In another change, she redesignated the head of human resources as Chief of Talent Management, which sounded suspiciously like a Hollywood agent’s position.

Paladino wasn’t the only skeptic. James Sampson questioned why the strategic plan lacked more specifics and outcome goals. Brown responded that such goals hadn’t yet been determined. Tan’s News report said the plan contained “few concrete details,” and that it too hadn’t been provided to the media (although the district’s information officer, Elena Cala, promptly provided it to Artvoice after a request, all 84 pages).

The tenor and disagreements at last week’s meeting left some questions up in the air. Such as why a legal opinion about the definitional outlines of “policy” couldn’t be obtained to address the objections of Paladino, himself a lawyer. And why better provision for accommodating the public at meetings couldn’t be made. The News editors and Tan hammered the board over this last week.

In a telephone conversation this week, Nevergold said both she and Sampson were working to find remedies. She pointed out that two board meetings since spring had been held in public school buildings to facilitate public access.

As to the meeting’s discord, she observed, “I’m human. I can be annoyed.” When, in her view, Paladino descends into public and personal insults, he is pursuing a private agenda, not public business. He has, she said, called one senior administrator “a misfit.” She said Paladino recklessly spreads insults and invective over the Web: “I’ve received emails forwarded by people who have nothing to do with education” containing complaints that Paladino never sent directly to her. And, she said, she doesn’t understand what information he isn’t getting. Nevertheless, Nevergold said she’s be willing to “sit down one-on-one…We’ve talked in the past.”

Whether this will happen soon may be problematic. Some of Paladino’s points, however aggressively put forward, may merit consideration. But in the interview this week, he remained strident and dismissive, calling several board members “arrogant and condescending.” This may not play out well.

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