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Mayor needs political capital, taxpayer cash to seize schools

ALBANY – If Mayor Byron W. Brown wants to take control of the Buffalo school system, he is going to have to spend political capital – and taxpayer money.

Property taxpayers in Yonkers, whose mayor exerts influence over that city’s school district, fund 41 percent of the school system’s budget.

Buffalo taxpayers, by contrast, now fund only about 8 percent of the city school district budget.

And while Brown has not yet made clear whether he wants an outright takeover of the School Board, or just some of the seats, history suggests that his path would be difficult in Albany, which needs to approve any increase of mayoral control or input into the district decision-making.

Brown’s path could become easier if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gets out front and uses his political muscle to drive the matter.

That has not happened, but sources suggested that the idea Brown floated this week did not begin at City Hall. These sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Cuomo quietly has been promoting the idea of giving mayors in a couple of cities – Buffalo and Yonkers – new powers over their school systems.

Last year, Cuomo vowed to push a “death penalty” plan for failing urban schools, but that never materialized. The mayoral takeover idea could be part of a Plan B, officials suggested.

Late Thursday, Cuomo administration officials denied they are directly encouraging the Brown administration to look into taking over the city school district.

“We look at every bill and every situation individually, but as the governor previously said, mayoral control is one possible option to consider for poorly performing districts,” said Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman.

Mayors of New York cities have grumbled for years that they control all government functions within their boundary lines except school districts. And for the last two generations, only New York City, in 2002, has managed to gain more control.

“It’s a huge challenge,” Anthony M. Masiello, former mayor of Buffalo, said of Brown’s goal of having more, or complete, influence over the School Board.

Masiello tried but failed to get a couple of seats on the board so that he could have at least some representation.

“I was always dismayed and troubled that you are the mayor and responsible for police and fire and responsible for a whole host of services to the city, but when it comes to education, you’re supposed to sit on the sidelines?” Masiello said.

He was not alone. Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy, former mayor of Rochester, lost in his bid to get mayoral control in a bitter 2010 battle.

If Brown is serious about some sort of takeover plan, key lawmakers in Albany have not been consulted so far, they said in interviews Wednesday and Thursday.

The obstacles are many, from critics who say a school system should not be in the hands of a single politician to teacher unions and other education groups that say School Board members should be elected directly by voters so that they are less susceptible to whims of changing mayoral administrations.

One member of the Assembly whose support would be needed used the same word as Masiello to describe Brown’s chances.

“It would be a challenge,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. “It’s a challenge to change the City of Buffalo School Board structure, but given the difficulties the district is having, I think all options should be explored.”

Far less ambitious school plans have died in Albany for years. Peoples-Stokes, for instance, has been unable to get legislation passed in her own house to change the date of School Board elections from May to November – a move she said would boost voter turnout. That change has been approved in the State Senate.

Legislative insiders say the power of the New York State United Teachers union in the Assembly would make any takeover effort by Brown especially bumpy. NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi was unavailable to comment.

The Senate might be more receptive. “They may have a hard time in the Assembly, but I think in the Senate it’s something we can get done,” Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said Wednesday as he was hearing about Brown’s idea for the first time from a reporter.

Grisanti criticized years of what he called questionable spending practices by the Buffalo district and an increasing number of troubled schools as evidence that another governance structure is needed.

One powerful Senate Republican, who can block or help pass education bills in Albany, was warm to the idea of more mayoral control.

“To me, mayoral control has a real upside because ultimately you hold someone accountable. They can get all the credit or all the blame,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman John J. Flanagan, of Suffolk County.

“Do I think it should be unilateral? Absolutely not,” he said of a complete mayoral takeover of a School Board such as Buffalo’s. But he said a “hybrid” system in which the mayor has at least a majority of board members could work so “voters could look and say he’s done a very good job or a lousy job.”

It would be a stretch to see how Brown could gain control of the city school system without assurances to provide more revenues from city residents for city schools.

In 2012, according to the Conference of Big 5 School Districts, the City of Buffalo contributed just 7.8 percent of the district’s total school revenues for a $900 million budget.

The state, by contrast, accounted for 75 percent of the district’s revenues, a level long envied by districts across the state.

Contrast that with Yonkers, which in the 1970s became the first city in the state with some form of mayoral control over the school district.

In 2012, Yonkers contributed 41 percent of its city revenues to the school district, the Big 5 group said.

New York City, with mayoral control of the school system, contributes 55 percent of its school district revenues.

Many suburban districts in Western New York and statewide, by contrast, can rely on 75 percent of funding from their own property taxpayers to fund the schools.

There are different ways in which mayors have gained some level of control over school boards.

In Yonkers, the mayor appoints the members of the School Board, who then appoint a superintendent. Its members, though, sit for fixed terms, meaning that a previous mayor’s appointees can carry over to a new mayor’s term.

Yonkers used to require board members be city employees, which put them more under the control of the mayor, but that requirement was dropped years ago.

In New York City, the School Board has essentially become an advisory panel, with the real power vested in the chancellor, who is appointed by the mayor and serves as a member of the mayor’s Cabinet.

Buffalo School Superintendent Pamela C. Brown suggested Thursday that changing the governance system of the district is not a good idea. “I would urge the community to look at our results and determine if now is the time to change course,” she said.