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State Sen. Gallivan says he’s open to mayoral takeover of Buffalo schools

ALBANY – A suburban state senator of the Republican majority is signaling possible support for legislation that would allow Buffalo’s mayor to take control of the city’s school district.

“I’m open-minded to it. … When you look at Buffalo’s lack of performance over the years, I think that merits looking at other ways for them to improve,” Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican, said in an interview. Republican support is key for any such legislation getting through the Senate, where the GOP holds the majority and leadership positions.

The Buffalo News also obtained a draft of the 34-page bill that would give Mayor Byron W. Brown the power to appoint all nine members of the School Board, hire and fire a superintendent and create a teacher and personnel “diversity” hiring system that considers the composition of the district’s students.

The draft mayoral control bill includes a sunset provision for July 31, 2017, meaning state lawmakers and the governor would have to OK continuation of the mayor’s powers over the Buffalo schools.

The mayoral control legislation, pushed hardest by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo, was supposed to have been introduced May 4. The lawmaker’s office said this weekend the legislation is still in draft form and under review by various stakeholders, including parents and teachers.

The state legislative session ends June 17, a narrow window at the Capitol already jammed with many contentious legislative proposals still to be considered.

The mayoral control measure needs the support of both houses, and so far a complete mayoral takeover of the Buffalo schools has attracted the interest of only Sen. Timothy Kennedy in the Senate. But as a Democrat, he is in the minority and does not have the political juice on his own to get the proposal approved.

Gallivan, who is a member of the GOP majority, said he is not a sponsor of the bill, though he indicated that could change, depending on the final language in the legislation.

“I want to see the proposed details,” he said.

Gallivan also signaled that something significant must be done to improve the performance of Buffalo’s school district.

“While we’re taking care of the city’s economic development, and there are many good things happening, you still don’t have young families moving in because of the school district,” the suburban Republican said.

To critics who do not want to end city voters’ electing Buffalo School Board members, Gallivan said turnout for those School Board elections hovers in the single digits.

“It seems to me, if it’s simply the mayor appointing the board, there’s no difference in the governance structure that’s overseeing” the schools, he said.

The senator said part of the reason he is considering support of mayoral control is to “ensure accountability” of the district on the part of a mayor whose administration can be made or broken based on the outcome of the performance of the city’s schools.

Supporters of mayoral control of Buffalo schools say that would block attempts to place the schools under some form of receivership. Some backers of mayoral control believe Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could have his sights on a receivership system for the district, although the governor has not specifically proposed that.

Brown has indicated his support for mayoral control, although he has not spent much time – in public anyway – lobbying for it in Albany.

Peoples-Stokes did not want to comment on the draft legislation, “The City of Buffalo School District Governance Reform Act,” which is dated May 6.

The draft language requires a mayoral-appointed superintendent to report four times a year on the district’s performance to the governor, Legislature and education board, as well as placing those reports on the district’s website.

The draft legislation also requires the superintendent to create a community school advisory committee to consider health and mental health needs of students, special education and English-language learners.

The draft bill also:

• Gives the Buffalo mayor the power to hire and fire a superintendent “without prior approval from the school board.”

• Requires the superintendent to prepare a school closure plan for each proposed closure, and consider the impact on a community, costs and savings, personnel needs and “disposability” of shuttered school buildings.

• Requires the superintendent to hold a public hearing with the affected community schools advisory council at each school within 60 days of any school closure plan.

• Gives the superintendent the authority to provide a group health and life insurance policy for teachers and other employees.

• Requires the mayor to “make every effort” to appoint a School Board member from each Common Council district.

• Requires all School Board members to be city residents and have certain education, health, business or trade experience.

• Sets two-year terms for School Board members, but any could be removed by the mayor at any time “for good cause.” Missing three consecutive School Board meetings would lead to the automatic dismissal of the board member.

• Sets compensation for School Board members up to $5,000 per year, and requires at least one regular School Board meeting each month.

• Prevents School Board members from holding any other elective office or running for office while serving on the district panel. They also cannot be employed by the city or district.

• Requires a hiring policy to “enhance diversity and equity in recruitment and retention” that considers the “diversity of the students attending” the Buffalo schools.

• Creates Community Schools Advisory Councils, with members being parents of children attending a city school and having two-year terms.