Carl Paladino has been removed from the Buffalo Board of Education in a ruling by the state education commissioner issued Thursday.
Commissioner MaryEllen Elia upheld the school board’s application to remove Paladino as a member of the board.
Paladino drew attention for making racially charged comments about President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, in a Buffalo newspaper last December. But the actual charges against him were for leaking sensitive information to the press from a closed-door session of the board.
In the decision, Elia wrote that Paladino “disclosed confidential information” from the board’s executive sessions regarding collective bargaining negotiations with the school district’s teachers union. She said his actions were a “willful violation of the law.”
The attorney for the school board, Frank Miller, said, “Justice has been done.”
“The message has been sent,” Miller said. “No one, regardless of their station in life, is above the law.”
Elia rejected Paladino’s contention that he was trying to get information about fraud and corruption within the board out to the media, saying that “is not a defense.”
Jay Worona, general counsel and deputy executive director for the New York State School Boards Association, said Elia upheld established law.
“There’s consistency, there’s conformity, and we’re pleased about that,” Worona said.
The education commissioner issued the decision in a week where racial divisions have been highlighted in the United States. A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12 left three people dead.
During the hearing, Paladino brought up the racist comments that he made against the Obamas. He apologized, saying “there was no excuse” for the remarks and that he had brought “shame” on his family.
But Paladino’s lawyers claimed that the school board was retaliating against Paladino for his remarks by filing the charges that he leaked board private information. They argued that Paladino’s First Amendment right to free speech was violated.
Elia found that Paladino did not prove that he was subjected to retribution from the board, and wrote there is “no evidence” that his right to free speech has been “chilled or otherwise impaired.”
Worona, with the school boards association, said it’s clear that the racist comments by the Buffalo businessman were a factor in the case.
“No one can deny that,” Worona said.
He said that if Elia had taken the opposite tack and not sanctioned Paladino for leaking private board information because of his free speech rights to make racially charged comments, then it would make a “mockery” of the laws governing school board members’ behavior.
Paladino attorney Dennis Vacco said he’s “terribly disappointed” with the decision. “It’s a bad day for the Buffalo public schools, it’s a bad day for the children who attend those schools,” Vacco said. “And it’s certainly a bad day for the taxpayers.”
Vacco, the former state attorney general, said he thinks it’s “excessive” to remove a “twice elected public official," and he said Paladino did not leak the information about the teacher contract talks until three months after the private board meeting occurred and after the contract had already been ratified.
“He is getting punished for pulling the curtain back,” said Vacco, who added Paladino was simply trying to reveal that the teachers union had “manipulated” the school board to “arrive at a budget-busting contract.”
Vacco, who is the former State Attorney General, says he thinks Commissioner Elia’s decision was politically motivated. He said it’s “curious” that the decision came one day after a protest disrupted a Buffalo school board meeting on Wednesday night, where he says demonstrators attempted to “link” the events in Virginia to Paladino.
“I’ve been around long enough to understand that there’s always a tinge of politics in any administrative decision,” Vacco said.
Paladino has also filed a federal lawsuit, saying that his First Amendment rights were violated in the removal proceedings. Vacco said he believes the ouster of his client from the school board will actually bolster Paladino’s case in federal court.
Under the education department ruling, Paladino is banned from seeking re election to the school board for a year. The next school board election will occur in 2019.