Two candidates inhabit Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino's universe these days. The first is Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner whose campaign Paladino is co-chairing at home in New York.
The other is Austin Harig, a teenager from south Buffalo who is running against Paladino for his seat on the Buffalo school board.
If they have anything in common, it's that both candidates have been drawn by Paladino's no-holds-barred style. Only for Harig, that's a problem he says is hurting the schools he still attends.
"The voice of our students and families have been drowned out in the shouting match that this board has become," the 18-year-old said at the school board's April 27 meeting, the last one before the May 3 election.
With Paladino listening from a few feet away, his soft-spoken challenger urged whoever winds up on the notoriously divided board to "end the petty rivalries and the fighting" and focus on the students.
The high school senior said later he's not intimidated by the millionaire chief executive of Ellicott Development Co., who is often photographed with Trump and made his own turbulent run for governor when Harig was in the sixth grade.
Then again, Harig's felt little of the fury Paladino unleashed during that 2010 race, when he declared he was "mad as hell" and promised to "take a baseball bat to Albany."
Except for unsuccessfully challenging Harig's petition signatures, Paladino has largely shrugged off the school board challenge. He skipped a chance to debate Harig and says little about him when asked.
"The people will do the right thing," Paladino said.
Paladino won his first three-year term on the school board in 2013, becoming part of a new voting majority that supports reforms that include expanding community and charter schools.
"You can't have change without acrimony," Paladino said when asked about Harig's comments about the board. "We're trying to change the direction of a huge ship. This little guy doesn't understand that."
With 34,000 students, Buffalo is the largest upstate district and one of the so-called Big Five urban districts plagued by high poverty and low student achievement, the others being Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City.
While the graduation rate in Buffalo has been inching up, it is still about 20 percentage points below the statewide average of 78 percent. The district's teachers have been working under an expired contract for more than a decade.
Harig complains the board's dysfunction results in too many legal fees that force the district to divert money better spent in the schools.
Parent Robert Fields has five children in the district, and while he supported Paladino for demanding financial accountability in a school renovation project, he said he was happy to see he had competition.
"It's good to hear other voices," he said.
Paladino's is one of six board seats at stake.
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