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Mayoral control bill lacks majority sponsor in State Senate

No member of the State Senate majority has emerged to sponsor a bill authorizing mayoral control for Buffalo’s public schools, raising major questions in Albany about the concept’s future.

While Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, has championed the idea of Mayor Byron W. Brown as chief of the school system, only Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo has so far embraced the idea as a Senate sponsor. And since he is a Democrat in an upper chamber controlled by a coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats, Albany observers now question the concept’s future even if Kennedy holds out hope for an eventual majority sponsor.

“People have to see the final language before making a decision,” said Lauren Rivett, Kennedy’s chief of staff, who noted the Senate version of the bill is expected to be finalized Wednesday.

“Once the bill is introduced, we’ll be working on gaining a co-sponsor and support from the majority,” she added. “We understand that’s important.”

She also said Kennedy’s involvement as a representative of the City of Buffalo has also been deemed critical to the bill’s introduction.

Nevertheless, few bills with only a Democratic prime sponsor achieve success in the GOP-controlled State Senate, as do few Republican bills in the Democratic Assembly. Kennedy, for example, gained passage of only one bill in 2012, a handful of minor bills in 2013, and none in 2014, according to Senate records.

Now a bill of major consequence for Buffalo has so far gained only a minority sponsor in a Senate suddenly dealing with turmoil following the Monday arrest of its Republican leader, Dean G. Skelos of Rockville Centre.

Even more questions surround the Buffalo effort because it remains separate from bills to extend mayoral control of New York City’s public schools, in effect since 2002 and expected to be reauthorized during the current session.

As a result, Senate prospects for the Peoples-Stokes bill remain cloudy, even though Republican Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan of Elma said late Tuesday he is “open-minded.”

“At this point, I haven’t had anything to look at to make a decision,” he said, adding neither he nor any other suburban senators want to inappropriately insert themselves into a city matter at this early juncture.

Still, he acknowledged one of them must eventually do exactly that if the bill is to prove successful.

“There is no question that with something this significant, there will have to be some level of majority support,” he said.

Gallivan added that “good strategy” might mean attaching a bill for Buffalo mayoral control to one extending the concept for New York City, but he said such a move may not prove critical.

Peoples-Stokes added late Tuesday that she and Kennedy have slated a Wednesday morning news conference in Albany to discuss the bill and that she believes it is possible for a Democratic senator to successfully pass a bill of such magnitude.

“It’s a bit of a challenge, but I believe it’s possible,” she said.

Still, the assemblywoman said any discussion of the bill’s eventual success remains “preliminary,” and that she is hopeful that local senators will eventually sign on.

“Hopefully, by the time of our vote, the entire delegation will be supportive,” she said.

Peoples-Stokes also said her bill will not call for a permanent solution but seek a “short period of time to redesign the infrastructure of the district.”

She said that though original plans called for her to introduce her version of the bill in the Assembly on Monday, she is still crafting final language before its submission.

She also said she believes several amendments will be offered in what she called a healthy process of refining the bill.

Republican Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer did not return a call seeking comment; neither did mayoral spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge.

After years of theoretical discussions about mayoral control of the city’s public schools, the idea gained momentum last 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, telling The Buffalo News 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 labels a majority of schools as failing, he said.

And while 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 last 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 current 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.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com