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Peoples-Stokes gets bill ready for mayor to control schools

The prospect of mayoral control of the Buffalo Public Schools will take a step forward Monday when Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes introduces legislation to abolish the elected School Board and assign future governance to seven appointed members.

The Buffalo Democrat acknowledged Wednesday that passing such a radical overhaul of the city’s public school governance will prove a “challenge,” especially in the Republican-led Senate. But she noted that she enjoys the encouragement of Mayor Byron W. Brown as well as initial indications of interest from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx.

“I think I can,” she said when asked if she can achieve passage of the legislation. “It’s worth the effort to talk to all my colleagues both locally and across the state to convince them this may be an opportunity to give these students a chance.”

While some Democrats in the Senate minority such as Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo have signaled support for the concept and Buffalo Democrat Sen. Marc C. Panepinto has introduced his own version of limited mayoral input, Peoples-Stokes said she has not yet secured a member of the majority coalition to co-sponsor her bill in that chamber.

She said she will “aggressively” seek a Senate sponsor who could emerge when the bill’s language is finalized – possibly as soon as Thursday.

“I want to get to the point where somebody is accountable for the condition of our public schools,” she said. “That would be this.”

Peoples-Stokes said she expects her new legislation to resemble the New York City model authorized in 2002, “but we are still in conversations about what it will say exactly.”

After years of theoretical discussions about giving the mayor of Buffalo control over the city’s public schools, the idea gained momentum earlier this month when Brown provided his strongest declaration to date of his interest in appointing the School Board. “I’m prepared to move decisively,” he said then.

Mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. But Peoples-Stokes said that although she has not discussed specifics of her bill with Brown, she believes he will support the concept.

Brown told The Buffalo News earlier this month that infighting among current School Board members has pushed many Buffalo voters to also accept the idea.

The discord has done little to improve a district in which the state considers a majority of schools to be failing, he said. Where the current School Board has failed to build consensus, Brown believes he can succeed.

“The board members, to me, appear passionate, concerned. But they have demonstrated an inability to work together to get things done in the best interests of the children,” Brown said earlier this month.

“My record as mayor has demonstrated an ability to build consensus, to bring people together and to work in the best interests in this community with successful results.”

He called mayoral control “a better model than the model we have now.”

Peoples-Stokes is embracing the concept as she also points to a governance system marked by discord and anemic turnout rates for May elections for School Board members. Her bill would do away with those elections and require the mayor to appoint seven board members to staggered terms in order to maintain “consistency.” A sunset provision will also be included so the process can be evaluated after a period of time, she added.

The assemblywoman said that her concept would not negate the democratic benefits offered by direct elections because the mayor would be held accountable. In turn, education issues would then occupy a much stronger position in quadrennial elections for mayor.

“It will not negate the democratic process at all,” she said. “In fact, it will help.”

Some observers have pegged Peoples-Stokes an ideal champion for the concept in Albany because of her close relationship with Brown and Heastie. Peoples-Stokes also served as co-chairwoman of Cuomo’s 2014 re-election campaign and has increasingly assumed leadership of major local concerns.

She emphasized Wednesday that she is avoiding involvement in any kind of “power struggle” associated with current School Board discord.

“Students are my only motivation,” she said, adding that she will most likely include some provision in the bill to ensure fair representation of the city’s population – including parents.

Meanwhile, Panepinto said his new bill “builds” on the Peoples-Stokes concept by expanding community input with the addition of two mayoral appointees to the current elected nine-member board.