Activists from Western New York demonstrated Wednesday at the New York State Education Department building in Albany. The group had hoped to confront the State Education Commissioner to demand Carl Paladino be kicked off the Buffalo Board of Education. But MaryEllen Elia was out of town.
What the 15 or so demonstrators lacked in numbers, they made up in vocal spirit. The protesters made the trip from Buffalo to Albany on Wednesday to demand Carl Paladino's removal from their local Board of Education. "We came from Buffalo today to talk to Commissioner Elia about Carl Paladino's removal. Several petitions have been filed against him and so far a hearing has been set but it's only about one of the petitions and it's gonna be in June here in Albany, and we would really like the Commissioner to meet with the people in Buffalo, since they're the ones that are most affected by it." That's Colleen Kristeich with SURJ Buffalo: Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Elia denied a previous request to meet with representatives from the group, which has been beating the drum for Paladino's ouster since he made comments regarding President Barrack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama in an article that appeared in December in Buffalo's alternative weekly newspaper, Artvoice. A frustrated Whitney Crispell of SURJ Buffalo says the group has made its presence known at several Buffalo School Board meetings. "We've shown up and 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 Elia to do the right thing and get rid of him."
On its Facebook page, SURJ Buffalo notes that this is the first time the group’s protests have been acknowledged by the Commissioner's office. Protesters hoped to convince the Commissioner to hold a hearing in Buffalo, not Albany.
Instead, Executive Deputy Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin met with the group, telling protesters Elia was not in town: "I'm not in the position to provide information that I don't have." Protester: "And would you convey our questions to the Commissioner?" Berlin: "I will certainly bring back this conversation." Berlin advised them if they plan to return for the June 22nd hearing they might look into getting a permit from the city of Albany to stage a protest outside the building on the sidewalk.
Elia was speaking today at a women's educational empowerment conference at the Embassy Suites in Saratoga Springs - her office answered a request for comment by email, stating "Because this matter is before the Commissioner, she must remain impartial, as a judge would in a court proceeding, and therefore cannot comment in any way."
Dennis Vacco, a former New York state attorney general who is representing Paladino before Elia, dismissed the demonstration. "It's my understanding that some of the protesters were Buffalo teachers, so, it's not surprising to us that the Buffalo Teacher's Federation would be organizing these protests in a fashion to try to unduly influence the Commissioner. We're not gonna be cowered by this silliness, these demonstrations. Our defense is not going to change. Quite frankly, on the concept of the Buffalo Teacher's Federation, NYSUT, plays right into our case because we believe they have conspired with majority members of the board of education to attack Carl Paladino in a retaliatory fashion for his comments that he made in December which they obviously disagreed with and this whole thing is about retaliation against Carl for the exercise of his First Amendment rights."
According to The Buffalo News, the Buffalo Board of Education originally sought Paladino's removal for the comments about the Obamas, then changed course on the advice of its attorney. The board majority's argument now is Paladino violated district policy when he published information about teacher contract negotiations that had been discussed in an executive session.
Whitney Crispell reminds us the hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. June 22nd at the State Education Department in Albany. "The Commissioner's office is no doubt aware that there are many, many, many people fired up about this and that we plan on having a presence there. There will be an opportunity for the public to come and watch those proceedings. And we will be there."
Officials note that although the hearing is open to the public, space will be limited.