Artvoice: What would you most like to happen in 2017?
Buffalo Public Schools Board of Education Member Carl Paladino: Obama catches mad cow disease after being caught having relations with a Herford. He dies before his trial and is buried in a cow pasture next to Valerie Jarret, who died weeks prior, after being convicted of sedition and treason, when a Jihady cellmate mistook her for being a nice person and decapitated her.
Artvoice: What would you most like to see go in 2017?
Paladino: Michelle Obama. I’d like her to return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.
(Artvoice, Dec. 23, 2016)
Segregation and Racism in Buffalo Public Schools
Dec. 23, 2016, was the last straw for the Buffalo community. The statements from Carl Paladino — a close friend of Trump who was well known for his failed run for governor of New York state, the publication of racist emails during that campaign, and consistent, overt racist statements in public forums — were the fuel that galvanized our community to fight for racial justice and his removal. Paladino’s nationally publicized racist, transphobic, and misogynistic remarks stood in stark contrast to the diverse district of approximately 34,000 students that is 47 percent Black, 19 percent Latino, and 20 percent white, and where more than 90 different languages are spoken. While Buffalo remains one of the most impoverished and segregated cities in the nation, in recent years the district has made strides toward being more culturally responsive and less discriminatory through a community schools program, restorative justice practices, and the adoption of a comprehensive gender identity policy.
And it hasn’t been an easy road. In 2015, a year before Paladino made his wildly offensive remarks, a parental complaint was filed with the federal Office of Civil Rights concerning the disproportionate racial balance in the district’s criteria-based schools (public schools with academic or talent requirements for admission). This complaint resulted in an investigation led by Gary Orfield from UCLA. Orfield found that a majority of the district’s students of color were indeed excluded from the highest performing schools in the district and recommended they expand high-quality offerings by adjusting the criteria for entrance, opening up more seats, improving the elementary curriculum so that all students are prepared for admittance into more rigorous programs, and drastically improving communication with parents and families. These recommendations were ill-received by a majority of the school board, including Paladino. In a widely circulated email, Paladino disparaged Orfield, a celebrated scholar and expert in the field of civil rights, as an “incompetent and blowhard liberal elitist” who would “lower standards on our criteria schools.”
So in December 2016, when Paladino made national headlines with his statements about the Obamas, it came on the heels of increasing racial tensions nationally because of Trump’s election and within the context of a school system struggling with segregation. Less than a week after the article was published, the Board of Education scheduled a meeting to demand Paladino’s removal and more than 300 people rallied at City Hall before that meeting to support his removal. That rally demonstrated a diversity that soon became a hallmark of the new resistance in Buffalo made up of local and national community groups and concerned students, teachers, and parents. The new civic group borne from that rally was called United Against Paladino Action Council (UAPAC). Angela Blue, a labor organizer and an executive board member of the NAACP, became a member of UAPAC and thought the group was getting such widespread support because “with the rise of Trump, people are more able to see the racism within our communities across the nation and here at home. The reason people have begun to finally move against Carl Paladino is it was OK when it wasn’t at your front door but now it is. And this is important because of Carl Paladino’s position within our community. It was a concern in the Black community for a long time, but it’s not just a Black issue anymore.”
Removing a democratically elected official who is openly racist is a complicated task and not for the faint of heart. In fact, it wasn’t until two years after he made the statements about Obama in Artvoice that he would be removed as a board member. This is the story of that fight.
The Unfolding Story
Paladino was elected to the school board in May 2013 after running on a platform of school choice. His anti-teacher union rhetoric and troubling record of racist remarks was disturbing to many citizens and in July 2015, the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization (BPTO) sent a letter to the New York State Commissioner of Education and others calling out “systemic racism and BOE member Carl Paladino.” This action initiated the first steps in community organizing. Parents, community members, and local activists staged a protest on the steps of Buffalo’s City Hall and by August, community activists — mostly parents and teachers — coalesced to establish the Buffalo Believe campaign. This campaign became a key factor in transitioning the Board of Education in May 2016 away from privatization efforts and toward a localized teacher and student-friendly majority.
Paladino was unfortunately re-elected in 2016, winning his seat by a margin of 132 votes against his opponent, Austin Harig, a high school senior. It wouldn’t be long before Paladino made the racist and misogynistic comments about the Obamas and the UAPAC coalition took off to oust him. In New York state, school board elections are held in May, which helps suburban and rural districts put their school budgets to a public vote. However, in the larger metropolitan areas of the state, the school budget is controlled by the state government and is not voted on by the public. This May vote guarantees an apathetic voter turnout and, in this case, helped result in the embarrassing re-election of Paladino.
In January 2017, the BPTO and the NAACP took legal action targeting Paladino known as a §306 Appeal that allows the commissioner to remove a member of a board of education for willful misconduct or neglect of duty. Throughout that spring and summer, while waiting for a decision on the appeal, members of UAPAC began to actively resist Paladino’s presence on the board at scheduled meetings. During the community speaker portion of meetings, activists, including students, spoke in opposition of Paladino’s refusal to resign and on many occasions the protesters shut down the meetings. Parent and activist Rachel Fix Dominguez vowed to speak at every meeting and bravely confronted Paladino face-to-face each month in the boardroom from December 2016 through August 2017.
UAPAC also held a community action forum in April 2017 to draw attention to the ongoing disruptions to the district in the face of Paladino’s continued presence on the board. In May, a group of activists traveled to Albany to demand a meeting with the commissioner. One of the activists, Whitney Crispell, told Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin and a public radio station that was reporting on the matter, “We’ve had demonstrations multiple times and people there are ready to see him go. His antics have not stopped. So everybody’s aware who might be hearing this outside of Buffalo, he has continued to [sighs heavily] say racist things and take racist actions. He just headlined a white supremacist rally in the city of Buffalo. We really, really need Commissioner [MaryEllen] Elia to do the right thing and get rid of him.” Commissioner Elia finally scheduled a hearing for late June that would be the final determinant to the removal of Paladino.
At that five-day hearing, in which six Board of Education members alleged Paladino knowingly disclosed confidential board information to the press regarding the teachers’ contract negotiations, UAPAC maintained a daily presence in the hearing room to keep Buffalonians informed of the proceedings 300 miles away. Queers 4 Racial Justice (Q4RJ), headed by Harper Bishop, organized a vocal protest outside the New York State Education Department building, coordinated to coincide with Paladino’s testimony.
Finally, on Aug. 17, 2017, Paladino was removed from the Buffalo Board of Education by Commissioner Elia for revealing confidential information about collective bargaining negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers’ Federation (BTF), the only petition that was addressed by the Commissioner. The consensus was that Paladino was removed because of his blatant disregard for the law, rather than for his racist speech. What’s frightening is: What does that say about the behaviors a school board member might need to engage in before they are removed?
Space for Students
Student involvement in political action to remove Paladino originated with Austin Harig, the 18-year-old who boldly ran against him in early 2016. Harig garnered local union support and clearly understood the dysfunction Paladino had created on the board, telling national news outlets, “I think we need to bring some adult behavior to the board — and I will tell you, Carl Paladino is not the person to do that,” according to a Politico article. The irony of having a young, previously unknown, student candidate come so close to beating Paladino in the election was not lost on the community.
The rallying cry — “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Paladino’s got to go!” — spread across the city throughout the winter and into the spring of 2017. When students joined the protesters around city hall, weary adults smiled at the enthusiasm and energy the teens brought, even as the cold wind whipped signs and scarfs at rallies. Students were disgusted by Paladino’s overt racism and many joined with school board members, politicians, teachers, and members of UAPAC to speak on the Martin Luther King holiday about the harm that hateful rhetoric can have on others, particularly children. One high school student, Kareem H., took to the microphone and said:
This fall, in the run-up to the election of Donald Trump, we saw insensitive racial actions increase in our high schools. There is a pervasive uneasiness and a fear for our future. For example, following Trump’s election and Paladino’s unprecedented hate speech making the national news, I have personally seen swastikas appear on the bathroom walls at my school. I have received notes calling me a terrorist. I believe that those students who already harbor prejudices, as well as full-grown adults around the country, have been emboldened by the actions these so-called leaders have taken toward minorities and women.
Students also spoke at board meetings during the public forum portion, and in early August 2017, a student-based press conference was held on the steps of City Hall prior to a board meeting.
Student involvement grew over time, but organizers acknowledge this was an area of weakness for the coalition. Many organized resisters at board meetings, coordinated by leadership from Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), consisted mainly of millennial to elderly Buffalonians, with little involvement by K-12 students.
Reflection on this Collaborative Work
The work to remove Paladino speaks to the strength and burgeoning progressive vision in the Buffalo community. But ultimately Paladino was removed based on a legal technicality and not on his racism, which is disturbing and speaks to the deep-seated racism that still exists. The work of UAPAC provided much needed racial awareness that brought people together for a common cause. Community groups sought each other out and continued to collaborate, particularly through the long winter and spring months of 2017, as they reached out for support, shared resources, and educational opportunities. Social media outreach, letter writing, and email campaigns to the commissioner never let up. Although this collaborative action is to be celebrated, it is just a drop in the bucket of educational equity needed in Buffalo. Coordinating around Paladino’s removal has produced more outspokenness about race in both our city and our school district. Moving forward, Buffalo Public Schools have committed to infusing more culturally responsive teaching and learning practices in the curricula and have hosted critical speakers such as Christopher Emdin, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Marc Lamont Hill, who was invited to speak to the community last October by Open Buffalo, a new justice organization that came to fruition during this contentious time. In addition, the district has dedicated resources to the ongoing disproportionality study, ensuring that each public school in Buffalo has an engaged team examining the root causes of their disproportionality and the ways they might address it.
We remain invigorated by the positive movements we have seen in Buffalo. At the same time, we worry about the broader context in which a city willingly elected a racist, misogynistic candidate to the school board — and then reelected him — and a state that was slow to act upon his removal. Why wasn’t Paladino removed based on his overt racism? Why was such intense pressure by UAPAC required to get the state to remove him? This context speaks to the vast amount of work we have left to do and to the anti-racist curriculum, pedagogy, and schooling that we must enact with students, including those in deeply segregated and unjust school systems.
Kate Haq (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran elementary school teacher and parent of three Buffalo Public Schools graduates. She is an active parent representative in BPS and her research connects homeless young adults with literacy and civic engagement. Alexa Schindel is a former science teacher and a parent of two BPS students. She is a teacher educator and works with teachers and students on engaging in local and global justice issues in the science classroom.