A version of this article was published in the Buffalo News on Monday, March 11th.
I remember driving the winding road to the majestic Glen Resort, tucked in the lush hills outside Binghamton. The forest was green as pool table felt; a summer breeze aired out our smoky Suburban. It was a good day, but this was no comfort to Carl Paladino. He sat in the back seat pointing at nobody in particular, punctuating his opinion on public education.
"I'm telling you, if we don't start graduating a lot more kids from our schools in the next few years, Buffalo will make Detroit look like the freakin' Riviera," he told Rus Thompson, his wheelman, and me. Again. And again. And again.
This scene and script were repeated often across the 35,000 miles we drove with the Republican gubernatorial candidate. Staten Island. Plattsburg. Fredonia. It didn't matter where we were, with Paladino all roads lead to education. It's the issue that vexes him most, the problem he researches obsessively, and the reason he took an interest in politics in the first place.
And that's one reason why he could have a profound impact as a member of the Buffalo School Board: he's deeply interested. He may shock his critics and do good things.
Forget for a moment the coarse caricature celebrated by the downstate media. Buffalonians know Paladino well; we know there's more to him. He has many detractors but most here regard him positively, according to polls. Still, many may not know what he will bring to the hapless School Board besides his metaphorical baseball bat. In fact, he brings plenty:
Knowledge: Carl Paladino forgets more about public education reform than many members of the School Board will ever know. His desk is stacked high and his brief case is bursting with education reports and articles and letters from parents. He has read every single word for many years and has a knack for recalling all of it. He is uniquely prepared for this responsibility.
Fiscal austerity: I watched many times as Paladino trimmed his business budgets into balance. No line item escaped his scrutiny; every vendor felt his squeeze. He also knew where every nickel of his 2010 campaign budget went, even though he despises politics. In an era when budgets must be cut, he'll guard taxpayers' money like his own.
Work ethic: I have never seen anyone work as hard as Carl Paladino - not just on the campaign trail, on the planet. He is up early every day and works until late in the night. He dines in his office. He gets his hair cut in his office. That's where you'll find him on weekends, too. No board member will outwork him.
Resources: I've seen Paladino's philanthropy budget - he is one of the most generous donors in our community. When St. Luke's school for homeless children nearly failed, he was the silent donor who saved the program. Today, he is a principle funder of St. Luke's outreach. He is frugal, but he invests in his interests and will surely put his money where his mouth is on some Board initiatives. Look for him to fund challengers to his School Board foes.
Buffalo's public schools are among the worst in the nation, even though an absurd amount of money is spent on each student. Union contracts and pensions are increasingly expensive. Parents who dropped out of school have dropout kids who are watching today as their own children drop out, too. This vicious cycle of academic failure assures the continued failure of our region.
Years of attempts to reform the broken system have not made the grade. Taxpayers and parents alike believe we have tried everything and failed. But there's one thing we haven't tried yet: Carl Paladino for School Board.
Get comfortable with this, because it is apparently happening.
And take a moment to do as Carl often says: "Strap in, fellas - this is gonna be a Helluva ride."