School elections might be over before Carl P. Paladino and attorney Daniel J. Chiacchia get an answer to their appeals to remove School Board members in Buffalo and Hamburg.
State education commissioners have been very reluctant to remove duly elected school board members, and John B. King Jr. is no exception.
“Under state law currently, there’s a very high bar for removal of a board member. There also is a very high bar for intervening with a decision that has been made by a school district,” King told The Buffalo News Editorial Board.
But it’s not so rare for the commissioner to receive petitions asking for the ouster of a board member. Currently, King is considering appeals to remove the Buffalo School Board president and two Hamburg Central School Board members.
“Hamburg’s not alone,” King said, adding that the problems in the Hamburg School District are on his radar screen. “The Hamburg situation may be unique, but there are other districts around the state where we have deep concerns about governance.”
In Buffalo, board member Paladino has filed two petitions with the education commissioner to remove board President Barbara Seals Nevergold. One alleges that she neglected her duties.
Since September, Paladino has criticized Nevergold’s leadership and accused her of supporting “improper and illegal” activities by School Superintendent Pamela Brown, supervising a faulty superintendent evaluation process, “sanctioning” improper district hiring practices and stifling open board discussion and debate. Nevergold responded to Paladino in late September, saying that many of his assertions “are based on your opinion, supposition, hearsay, and distorted and/or manipulated facts.”
A second petition calling for her removal contends that Nevergold is improperly holding her position because she was appointed to fill a midterm vacancy and was never elected at the next board election. Nevergold was appointed by the board in January to fill the remainder of Christopher L. Jacobs’ term following his election as Erie County Clerk. Jacobs’ seat was to be up for re-election in May of next year, and Nevergold said she believed she would not be required to run for election until then.
But Paladino cites a board policy requiring a board appointee to “hold his/her office until the next annual election of board members,” and he contends that Nevergold should have been required to run for election this May in order to keep her seat. Nevergold has called Paladino’s efforts to oust her “intimidation and harassment.”
In Hamburg, parent and attorney Chiacchia filed a petition with King to remove board Vice President Sally A. Stephenson, and her daughter, Holly A. Balaya, from the board.
He contends that they had a conflict of interest they did not disclose before voting on seeking a new attorney for the school district and on providing legal representation for the former board president and superintendent in a complaint filed against them. Both deny any conflict exists.
Balaya’s seat is up for election in May, while Stephenson’s term will end in June 2015. The issue for Balaya and Nevergold may be moot before the commissioner issues a decision.
Chiacchia is a leader of a parents group circulating petitions calling for an outside, independent investigation of recent board actions as well as the resignations of Stephenson, Balaya and board member Catherine Schrauth Forcucci. The parents group, Hamburg Education Information, said it submitted petitions with more than 1,200 signatures to King this week.
While the commissioner, according to a spokesman, considers removal “a drastic remedy that should be taken only in extreme circumstances,” the state did take over the 2,800-student Roosevelt School District in Nassau County in 2002 because of poor student performance and financial problems.
The superintendent and School Board were removed and replaced by board members and a superintendent selected by the state Board of Regents. Gradually, elected board members were phased back into office.
Education commissioners have removed at least six other board members in the last 21 years, including four in Western New York.
Victor J. Turchiarelli’s seat on the Buffalo School Board was declared vacant in 1992 by then-Commissioner Thomas E. Sobol after Turchiarelli failed to attend board meetings for more than a year because of a back injury.
Sobol also removed Lackawanna School Board member Edward V. Sabuda in 1995 because he knocked another board member to the floor during a public meeting.
Then-Commissioner Richard P. Mills removed Bonnie R. Gifford and Robert J. Weller from the Lewiston-Porter School Board in 2008. The board had appointed them to fill the seats held by Edward M. Lilly and Scott A. Stepien. Lilly and Stepien were removed by the board for failing to complete required financial training, but Mills reinstated them after deciding the efforts to oust them were premature.
Education commissioners have upheld some local boards that have thrown off board members charged with misconduct, including the Lackawanna School Board when it removed Mark L. Balen from the board in 1999 and the Jamestown School District, which removed Deann Nelson in 2006. Also locally, the Iroquois Central School Board removed Michael J. McCormick III in 1994 for misconduct.
Appealing to the education commissioner is not usually a speedy process. The commissioner’s legal staff will not review the petition until those charged have filed answers, the petitioner files a reply, and other briefs have been filed, according to the state Education Department. That process usually takes about eight weeks after the original petition is filed, unless the parties receive extensions.
Once the file is complete, the commissioner’s Office of Counsel tries to issue a decision within six to eight months, or eight to 10 months after the petition was filed, according to its website. But with hundreds of petitions to the commissioner filed every year for a wide variety of actions, there is no guarantee of a specific time frame, it said.