Carl Paladino has been removed from the Buffalo school board, in a ruling by the state education commissioner issued Thursday.
Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia upheld the Buffalo School Board’s application to remove Carl Paladino as a member of the board. Paladino drew attention for making racially charged comments about President 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 writes that Paladino “disclosed confidential information” from the board’s executive sessions regarding collective bargaining negotiations with the school district’s teachers union. She says his actions were a “willful violation of the law”.
The attorney for the school board, Frank Miller, says “justice has been done”.
“The message has been sent,” Miller said. “No one, regardless of their station in life, is above the law.”
Commissioner 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, says 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 U.S.. A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville Virginia on August 12th left three people dead.
During the hearing, Paladino brought up the racist comments 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.
Commissioner Elia found that Paladino did not prove that he was subjected to retribution from the board, and writes there is “no evidence” that his right to free speech has been “chilled or otherwise impaired”.
Worona, with the school boards association, says it’s clear that the racist comments by the Buffalo businessman were a factor in the case.
“No one can deny that,” said Worona.
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 says 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 certainly a bad day for the taxpayers.”
Vacco, the former State Attorney General, says he thinks it’s a “reach” to remove a “duly elected” school board member, and he says 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 said Paladino was simply trying to reveal that the teachers union had “manipulated” the school board to “arrive at a budget busting contract”.
Under the education department ruling, Paladino is banned from seeking re election to the board for a year.
The legal wrangling over Paladino’s positon on the school board is not over yet, though. Paladino has filed a federal law suit claiming that his first amendment rights were violated by the boards’ actions.