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Big City Schools' Group Pushes for Ouster of Carl Paladino From Buffalo Board

UPDATED

In an unusual move, the national organization group that represents urban school boards and their superintendents is asking New York state officials to remove Carl Paladino from the Buffalo, N.Y., school board.

The Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools is the latest in a line of people and groups to seek Paladino's ouster in response to derogatory comments he made about President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Valerie Jarrett, the president's long-time adviser.

A spokesman for the Council said he believed it was the first time in 40 years—and possibly in the organization's 50-year history—that it had publicly called for the removal of a school board member or superintendent in one of its districts.

But the Council's strongly-worded statement this week drew the same defiant response from Paladino as the others. He told Education Week on Friday that he will fight any attempt to oust him.

"Hell, no," he said when asked if he plans to quit.

The calls for Paladino's resignation ignited more than two weeks ago when a survey he filled out for a local Buffalo publication, the Artvoice, was published. In his response to questions about what he'd like to see happen in 2017 and who he'd like to see go away, Paladino told the publication that he'd like for President Obama to catch mad cow disease and die and for Mrs. Obama to "return to being a male and let loose" in Zimbabwe to live with a gorilla.

The comments were widely condemned as racist and calls for his ouster began almost immediately. His comments were also denounced by a spokesperson for President-elect Trump, for whose campaign Paladino served as New York co-chair.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote to New York state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia asking that Paladino be removed. The Buffalo school board approved a resolution by a 6-2 vote in December condemning Paladino's comments and giving him 24 hours to resign before starting the process to remove him.

The New York state education commissioner can remove a school board member for neglect of duty or willful misconduct, but a formal application seeking removal must be submitted to the commissioner within 30 days of the action that led to the complaint, according to state law.

As of Friday, the department had received no official request from the Buffalo school board or any other entity asking for Paladino's removal, a department spokeswoman said. UPDATE: New York state law also allows local school boards to remove a member for "official misconduct."  

In his statement condemning the remarks, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said Paladino's comments showed "a craven disregard for the dignity of the first family, and the ugly and racist nature of his statements reflects poorly on all of us in public education."

"Regardless of whether they were spoken in the conduct of his duties as a public official, Mr. Paladino's loathsome words set an example of intolerance for all the students that we are charged with teaching and guiding," the statement continued. "There is simply no place in our public dialogue for an elected school board member to spew such hatred."

But in an interview on Friday, Paladino shrugged off the council's statement.

"Who cares what they think?" he said. "I don't care what they think..."

He asked what the Council had done to improve the education of the 34,000 students in Buffalo.  "Go ask them that question," he said.

Paladino said he took full responsibility for the comments published in the paper, and repeated that they were intended for friends. "I would totally acknowledge that my choice of words was bad," he said.

He said the school board's attempt to remove him would be a violation of the First Amendment. He charged the school board with using his "unfortunate" statements to seek his ouster because he had spent the last three years "exposing the underbelly of the beast" in the Buffalo school system. Without a viable argument against him, board members were resorting to playing "the race card," he said. And he accused them of going to the press because they were upset that Trump won the election. 

Paladino's statements about being an anti-corruption crusader run counter to testimony from some school board members at the December meeting when they voted to ask him to resign. Female board members spoke of a pattern of demeaning behavior toward them and board members of color. They argued that their own students would face disciplinary action if they had said what Paladino had.

But Paladino accused the school board of giving "away the farm" in the recently-approved contract with the teachers' union.  (He wrote about this in a piece in the Artvoice.) The district, he said, was the only one in the country that still provides retirees lifetime health benefits for themselves and their spouses, a provision that cost the district $75 million last year. That provision was supposed to sunset in the new contract so that new hires would not get the benefit, but it did not happen, he said. And the district had one of the highest teacher-costs in the country, but was among the lowest-performing, he said.

"If you want to change things you are going to have acrimony, you are going to have adversity, it's going to be chaotic," he said. "That's the only way you are going to have change."

Some Buffalo school board members contacted Friday evening did not immediately return calls for comment.

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