In his year on the Buffalo Board of Education, Carl P. Paladino has played an unquestionable role drawing attention to the problems of the beleaguered school system.
The real estate developer and former Republican gubernatorial candidate vowed to turn the majority of the board and oust recently departed Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, attracting what some call unprecedented attention to this year’s election. He recruited newcomers Larry Quinn and Patti Bowers Pierce to run for spots, which they handily won, setting the stage for what promises to be a massive overhaul of the district.
“You’re going to see a number of very poignant moves,” Paladino said. “Whatever we have to do. We’re not going to talk about nonsense anymore.”
The changing of the proverbial guard on the nine-member School Board, beginning with this evening’s meeting, now raises the question of how much influence Paladino will have driving policy and shaping the future of the district.
Paladino has submitted several items for consideration at the first business meeting. Most notable is the hiring of a New York City attorney to help negotiate a new contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a process in which Paladino has vowed to play a key role.
“We’re going to break it down,” Paladino said. “We’re going to go out there on the edge and break it down. It’s going to be frightening in many respects to many people, but it’s going to happen.”
Despite his characteristic tough talk, Paladino’s influence driving policy has so far been limited. He has put dozens of resolutions before the board, most of which failed to get a second board member’s support to even bring to the table.
Prior to his first School Board meeting about a year ago, he came up with his own agenda for the meeting, detailing nearly three dozen items for consideration in a 52-page document – including Brown’s dismissal.
It has been months since Paladino brought any proposals before the board, but that changed this week when he sent out a far more subdued list of items for consideration at the new board’s first business meeting.
His agenda consists of just four things, two of which deal with outstanding business at Bennett High School and the former Pinnacle Charter School. Paladino wants the board to rescind its approval of a consultant contract for Bennett High School, an agreement voted on before the new board majority took office.
He also wants the board to put off plans to merge Pinnacle with Harvey Austin School, giving the school time to regain status as a charter school. Another item calls for providing transportation to students who attend the Charter School for Applied Technologies.
Most interesting, however, is a proposal to enlist the services of Neil H. Abramson, of Manhattan, who specializes in labor law and contract negotiations.
Abramson worked with the New York City Department of Education on contract negotiations there, striking an agreement that resulted in significant health care savings and flexibility that allowed some schools to extend the school day and pilot special programs.
Both Paladino and Quinn have vowed to get involved with contract talks, and some speculate that the new board majority is using a plan to create more charter schools as leverage to get concessions from the union.
“I don’t want to make this a big confrontation with Phil Rumore,” Quinn said, referring to the longtime BTF president. “But this is 2014, not 1975. We need to make some changes.”
Although it’s not on the agenda, Paladino also wants to create an Office of Charter Schools within the district. The office would be responsible for working with charter schools that want to open in the area.
Paladino’s priorities – he’s a supporter of charter schools and choice for parents – are reflected in the new board majority’s plan for the future, although the group is moving forward as a unified force with no one member dominating the limelight.
Yet even as members of the new majority try to maintain autonomy, some of Paladino’s biggest rivals on the board see them as little more than a collections of the wealthy businessman’s cronies.
Those critics are already flinging insults, accusing their colleagues of having a sense of entitlement and saying Paladino stands to benefit from the push for charter schools because he could lease space in buildings he owns to them. For instance, Paladino is part owner in the former Holy Angels Academy, which will house the Charter School for Applied Technologies this fall.
They’ve also said the man pegged for the job of interim superintendent, Donald A. Ogilvie, is part of the “old boys club” and question whether they can work with him.
Those dynamics set the stage for a continuation of infighting that has come to mark the leadership of the city schools, a divide drawn just as much along racial as ideological lines for how to best fix a broken school system.
“This is not a corporation; this is an elected body,” board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman said of her colleagues’ approach to governing the schools. “At the end of the day, this is about entitlement.”