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Mayor considers taking control of Buffalo school district

Mayor Byron W. Brown is looking at taking control of the city schools, which marks a new level of involvement in the Buffalo Public School District by the city’s top elected official.

“I think from the level of frustration and from the conversations that I’m having with many people and from what I’m hearing from many people and from many parents, it’s definitely something that we are studying and looking at more closely,” Brown said in an interview with The Buffalo News on Wednesday.

Brown has been hesitant in the past to make bold statements about the governance of the school district, and it was his opponents in the 2013 election – not Brown – who expressed support for mayoral control.

With his Wednesday statement, the mayor joins others – including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., parents and local business leaders – who have expressed frustration with the state of the school district. Criticism of the district by King and others contrast with comments made by members of the School Board’s majority, who have pointed to modest increases in the graduation rate and a decline in school suspensions to say that the district is moving in the right direction.

“I think people are concerned that the model that exists isn’t working, and people are looking for options and people are looking for hope,” Brown said.

Asked if mayoral control can deliver hope, Brown said: “From the research that we’ve done looking at it in other cities, it is something that has interjected hope that things can be better in those other cities.”

Brown remained cautious Wednesday, saying that he is not actively seeking control of the district and that it is one of several options he is examining, but he made some of his strongest comments to date about mayoral control. “I think the model could be valuable, and many other people that I have had conversations with think the model could be valuable,” he said.

Now that city finances have been stabilized and the city is no longer under a “hard” state-appointed financial control board, he can turn his attention to other things, Brown said. “Now we’re at the point where the community can begin to think about this as an option that makes sense,” he said.

Brown made clear, though, that if he pursues it, he will not take up the fight alone. “It would ultimately have to be something that the community agreed upon, in my estimation, and the community felt could make a difference,” he said.

Mayoral control of a school district can take on various forms, but it typically involves the elected School Board being replaced by a board appointed by the mayor to some degree. It has caused significant controversy in other communities, and its outcomes have been debated in education circles.

Changing the school governance structure in Buffalo would also require state legislation.

Even with a groundswell of community support, Brown said, he would still want to cooperate with the major stakeholders.

“That is what I have tried to do as mayor with the teachers union, with the administrators union, with the parents, with board members, with the superintendent,” he said.

“I think having people working together, pulling all in the same direction, supporting the efforts to see greater achievement and student success is critically important, no matter what the model is.”

Brown has had conversations with School Board members about mayoral control and said he has not received pushback when he has floated the idea.

While the mayor acknowledged his frustration, he said Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and School Board members have been responsive.

“I’m not frustrated about the actors,” he said. “I’m frustrated by the level of results at this point.”

He has not approached the area’s state legislative delegation about sponsoring a bill that would turn control of the district over to him.

“I do think it makes sense for the mayor to be thinking about these things,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. “Right now, at this point, he doesn’t have many options. I think it makes sense for him to look into other options.”

Peoples-Stokes’ colleagues from New York City, where mayoral control has been in effect since 2002, are not supportive of the model, she said, adding that she would need to see strong advocacy by Mayor Brown and widespread community support in order to sponsor mayoral control legislation.

Getting legislation passed “would be a heavy lift,” but if it’s something the community wants, it should be pursued, she said.

Tuesday, Brown discussed his consideration of mayoral control for the district in response to a question during a board meeting of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, which was attended by about 30 people.

“He did talk about the fact that he has traditionally not been an advocate for mayoral control, but given the state of the schools, that’s something he might need to take a look at,” said William M. Collins, principal with Travers Collins.

Those in the room said that Brown’s comments were some of the strongest language he has used on the topic of education but cautioned that the mayor said he has not made any decisions.

“He was careful to indicate that he is researching and getting good advice on how to proceed forward,” said Paul L. Snyder III, CEO of Snyder Corp.

Collins and Snyder said the remarks were well-received by the members of the business community.

“The mayor’s keenly interested; he wants to be proactive,” Snyder said. “I applaud that.”

Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, a former School Board member, said all options must be considered.

“I would be interested in knowing what it looks like, what a mayoral takeover of the school system looks like, how it functions, before making a decision on whether it would be a good thing for students or for the school system,” Pridgen said.

A Siena Research Institute poll from early September showed that 52 percent of likely Democratic voters are opposed to putting the mayor in control of Buffalo schools, and 36 percent support it, while 12 percent had no opinion. The poll of 502 likely Democratic voters in the city was sponsored by The News and WGRZ-TV.

Though he was hesitant to support mayoral control or any dramatic interventions in the school district during his re-election campaign, Brown made a point of discussing the schools in his inaugural address Dec. 31, when he began his third term.

School Board member James M. Sampson, who was elected on a platform of reforming the district, said he is not surprised that Brown is thinking about mayoral control, because the mayor has said he would like to be more involved in education.

“It’s part of our responsibility as leaders to look at all those options,” Sampson said. “I’m sure he’s looking at the pros and cons.”