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State Legislature appoints Collins to Board of Regents

ALBANY – State lawmakers on Tuesday afternoon elected Catherine Fisher Collins as a member of the state Board of Regents representing Western New York, ending the long tenure of Robert M. Bennett on the state’s education policy-setting panel.

Collins, a former member of the Buffalo Board of Education, is a professor at the state university’s Empire State College.

Collins is one of four new members lawmakers are appointing Tuesday to the 17-member Board of Regents, in addition to three incumbents in line for re-election. Several of the campaigns became especially spirited at a time when the state Education Department has come under fire by everyone from the state’s big teachers unions to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The New York State United Teachers union put on an especially aggressive campaign, lawmakers say, to ensure that Bennett and one other now-departing member, James Dawson from Plattsburgh, did not win another five-year term to the Board of Regents.

“Dr. Collins is an educator,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said in nominating Collins on the Assembly floor. The lawmaker described Collins’ qualifications, and said she will offer “energy” and “independence” on the Regents.

“I’m excited about her desire to be the kind of leader who’s willing to listen,” added Peoples-Stokes, who pushed Collins with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in a furious closed-door campaign over the past several weeks.

State Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat, praised the outgoing Bennett, but said lawmakers and New York residents have called for “a new direction” at the Regents.

Republicans, in the minority in the joint session, instead nominated David Lowrey, a Lockport teacher, for the post, but he was handily defeated by Collins. Assemblyman Andy Goodell, a Chautauqua County Republican, questioned the decision to place someone on the Regents who served on the board of the academically troubled Buffalo school board.

Collins received 124 votes in the rare joint session of the Assembly and State Senate. The number of votes for Lowrey was not immediately released and came almost exclusively from Republicans.

Collins, along with candidates for other spots on the Regents, played no role other than to watch and listen to the debate and voting. They had all been publicly interviewed over the past couple months at the Capitol.

Besides Collins, three other new members from elsewhere around the state will be joining the Regents following Tuesday’s voting, in addition to three incumbents who were re-elected.

In all, about four dozen people applied for the jobs; over the years, it’s been rare to have more than one or two candidates in the often pre-determined process.

Membership to the exclusive club that is the Regents is granted by a vote of state lawmakers, which, given their numbers, means the real decision-making is in the hands of the Assembly Democrats and with virtually no role for State Senate Republicans in the joint session of the two houses. Cuomo also plays no role in the matter.

Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, noted criticisms by some of his colleagues directed at the Regents over the implementation of the Common Core standards and the job performance evaluations of teachers. “There have been some concerns and we would hope that the Regents do take the opinion of the Legislature since we do represent communities and families … We’re the elected representatives of the people,” Heastie said.

Republican lawmakers made their unhappiness known during Tuesday afternoon’s floor debate.

“The public remains somewhat in the dark on this process,” Assemblyman Edward Ra, a Long Island Republican, said of the process when the two houses convene to vote on members of the Regents. He said among the ideas to change the process is a plan to have New York voters directly elect Regents.

Assemblyman Peter Lopez, a Schoharie County Republican, said many members of the Regents have been “passive observers” during the roll-out of the Common Core standards. “As a body, our Regents have failed us,” he said. “We need leaders, not rubber stamps.”

State Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, praised outgoing Regents Bennett and Dawson. “They served with distinction,” he said.

An early task of the Regents will be to select a new education commissioner, following the departure last year of John King. The Regents have broad policy authority over the state’s public school system and its 700 districts. The education department runs statewide student testing programs, approves the classes children are taught, certifies teachers, and regulates everything from vocational schools to the licensing of dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, nurses and four dozen other professions. Members of the Regents are not paid.

Bennett, a Town of Tonawanda resident and former United Way president, was first elected to the Regents in 1995, and was the Regents Chancellor from 2002 until the spring of 2009. He stepped down from that powerful post but remained as a member of the Regents representing the Eighth Judicial District, which includes an eight-county region of Western New York. He announced Sunday he was dropping out of the race after Heastie said Collins was his choice for the opening.

The Regents seat for Western New York had three finalists. Collins’ main political backer in the Assembly was Peoples-Stokes, while Bennett’s chief supporter was Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, a Kenmore Democrat. John Licata, a former Buffalo School Board member, was backed by Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat.

Schimminger said Bennett had enough votes from lawmakers from the Eighth Judicial District – if Republican legislators were factored into the decision-making process.

“I think (Bennett) was treated shabbily and Art Eve would be very disappointed,” Schimminger said, referring to the former Buffalo assemblyman who in 1995 first suggested to him that Bennett join the Regents. Schimminger declined to vote for Collins or Lowrey in the afternoon floor debate.