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Buffalo school mayoral control bill is finalized

ALBANY – While the Buffalo Board of Education expedites its search for a new school superintendent, the push is quickening in Albany to approve legislation to strip the existing board of its powers and give the mayor the authority to hire a superintendent and appoint a new board.

A much-anticipated bill giving ultimate control of the Buffalo school system to the mayor has been finalized in the Assembly. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, is looking to push the legislation through both houses before the legislative session ends next month.

The bill, if approved, would immediately drop the existing board structure and give the power to Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Peoples-Stokes said the district needs “serious intervention.” She is hoping to meet with new Senate Majority Leader John J. Flanagan Jr., R-Huntington, who became an expert on education matters as chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

A copy of the legislation was obtained by The Buffalo News and shows only minor changes from a draft obtained last week.

The bill does not yet have a Senate sponsor from the Republican majority. Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, who last week said he was open to considering the change in governance of the Buffalo schools, said Wednesday that he had not yet seen the new bill.

“I want to learn more about it and why it’s a better thing to do than what we have now,” Gallivan said.

Peoples-Stokes was due to introduce the bill, which lawmakers say has the support of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, more than two weeks ago. But she said refinements and discussions with stakeholders caused the delay.

The measure has its opponents, including the Buffalo Teachers Federation and some lawmakers who say many city residents will not want to end the process in which they – and not the mayor – get to select the School Board members.

Peoples-Stokes, interviewed Wednesday after the legislative session ended for the week, said the city cannot afford to wait on what she called a management crisis in the school district.

“There’s a lot of time and effort and money into building a new economy, a new workforce in the City of Buffalo, and if people are not successful in getting a high school diploma, they’re not going to be eligible for jobs in the knowledge-based economy. There’s a large portion of the constituents I represent who are being left out,” she said of poor high school graduation rates and elementary students who are not at grade level in math and language skills.

Peoples-Stokes, who is close with Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, D-Bronx, says that she is making the issue of mayoral control her top priority but that she has not yet convinced a majority of her Western New York colleagues.

“It’s an interesting theory,” Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan, a fellow Buffalo Democrat, said of Peoples-Stokes’ bill. But he questioned the effectiveness of mayoral control models, different as they are from each other, for existing programs in New York City and Yonkers.

“You can change the management structure of urban schools, but it doesn’t provide you with a silvery bullet to change your results,” Ryan said.

He noted that the board members all have fixed terms in office. “So it’s unclear whether we’re talking about removing those board members and disenfranchising the voters, or would it be the proposal to replace those members when their terms end?” Ryan said.

“There are many more questions than there are answers.”

But Peoples-Stokes said her new bill makes things clear: The existing board would be replaced as soon as the bill is passed and signed by Cuomo.

She said that the legislation is needed no matter who might be chosen to fill the interim superintendent’s office and that she hopes the bill is made into law before a new superintendent is selected.

The bill is nearly unchanged from a May 6 draft that set out the powers of the mayor over the school system, as well as specific duties of the superintendent and School Board, such as requirements that must be met before a failing school is shut down.

It promotes the hiring of a more diverse workforce to better reflect the student population.

The new version changes from the draft bill in how often – from biannually to every quarter – Buffalo school officials must complete a public report on the district’s performance.

A section on community school advisory councils – which would advise the superintendent and board on an array of education issues – was amended in the new version to say the panels “may”include parents instead of that members must be a parent.

The new version also allows teachers to serve on the community councils. Both versions require advisory council members to be city residents.

The legislation provides for mayoral control for a two-year period, after which the State Legislature would have to approve an extension. It also would provide a $5,000 annual salary to School Board members, who would have to meet at least once a month.

Board members could be removed by the mayor at any time “for good cause,” and they would automatically lose their posts if they miss three consecutive board meetings.

The mayor would be able to hire and fire a superintendent “without prior approval” from the School Board.

“I’m very encouraged,” Peoples-Stokes said about her bill’s chances for passage before the 2015 session ends June 17.