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Mayoral control of schools carries risks for Brown

If the State Legislature gives the mayor of Buffalo control of public schools, Byron W. Brown could face a classic case of “being careful what you wish for.”

It is unlikely that Brown could again stroll through another election with a cheery “Progress” theme, with ads featuring busy construction cranes.

With control over the schools, the mayor would be held accountable for the performance of the school district, should he seek re-election in 2017.

“Unless he has the resources necessary to improve teaching and learning conditions, nothing is going to happen, and it’s going to fall right back in his lap,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore.

And Rumore promises major union involvement in mayoral elections should the schools be turned over to the mayor.

The prospect of running a mayoral campaign based on the success or failure of public schools makes Stephen T. Banko III cringe. He managed three citywide efforts for former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

“As much as you would like to impact what’s going on in education, we live in a time of diminished resources and increased expectations,” Banko said. “That’s a recipe for failure.”

In an interview Friday at City Hall, though, the mayor said many segments of the city are concerned about the school district, and he is prepared to step in if the Legislature and governor approve legislation giving him that power.

“I don’t really look at this in relation to what is good for me electorally,” he said. “I’ve been open to this based on what’s good for the children of this community, and trying to create collaborations and consensus and bringing stakeholders together.”

Brown said he is not sure if the legislation will succeed in Albany. But he said parents, teachers and other elements of the community are anxious for change.

“People want to see things go in a different direction,” he said.

While questions surround whether Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo can successfully shepherd through the Legislature her bill to transfer control of the schools to the mayor, battle lines already may be forming for a theoretical election two and half years away.

School Board member Carl P. Paladino said the entire mayoral control effort aims to neutralize the influence he, board member Larry Quinn and others have exercised since their election last year.

Paladino said Brown’s measured support for mayoral control stems from his desire to please Peoples-Stokes and her Grassroots political organization, which spawned the mayor’s political career.

“I’ve spoken to him, and I don’t think he wants it at all,” Paladino said of Brown’s interest in taking over the schools.

Paladino pointed to Peoples-Stokes and political organization Grassroots as the motivating factors.

Paladino said the push for mayoral control stems from his majority bloc’s control of the School Board. His faction’s election reflects the will of Buffalo voters, he said.

“Obviously, the women on the present minority are becoming irrelevant, and the lack of empowerment is shattering to them,” he said. “It’s disgusting what they’re doing.”

He called Peoples-Stokes’ bill “one sick document.”

In addition, he questioned Brown’s ability to inherit a major urban school district and succeed while enhancing his political viability.

“He can’t handle the education system; he knows nothing about it,” Paladino said.

Brown, however, said he is up to the challenge.

But he acknowledged he is not pushing the issue in Albany the way other mayors have in the past – most notably former mayors Robert J. Duffy of Rochester and Michael R. Bloomberg of New York.

Still, without Republican sponsorship of the Peoples-Stokes bill in the Senate, most observers believe the idea will die at the end of the legislative session next month. One knowledgeable GOP source said Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Amherst will not sponsor the bill, leaving all eyes on Republican Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan of Elma.

Gallivan remains undecided and notes that the enthusiasm for running the schools displayed by Buffalo’s mayor pales in comparison to past efforts by Duffy and Bloomberg. The senator also recognizes the enormity of the challenge.

“It would mean taking on an additional, enormous responsibility that could potentially make or break any mayor,” Gallivan said. “It would have to be one of his top priorities and he would have to pay attention to it.”

He and Brown said they have not yet discussed the issue, casting more uncertainty on its fate in the Senate.

And even if it does pass, Rumore said Friday his union may very well challenge the concept in court as a violation of the City Charter. He also said the BTF stands ready to devote all its considerable resources to any mayoral election with schools as an issue – marking a new potential element of future citywide campaigns.

“We will be even more motivated if there are decisions that do not enhance teaching and learning conditions,” he said. “And no matter whom he appoints, there will be people who don’t like it.”

Paladino, meanwhile, says influential business leaders such as M&T Bank Chairman Robert G. Wilmers are pressing the issue with Brown, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and Wilmers’ former employee – Lt. Gov. Kathy. Hochul.

“He’s way off base if he thinks he can impose his will on the people in the trenches,” Paladino said of Wilmers. “And without solid Republican support in the Senate, it’s not going to happen.”

It all brings back memories of the 1970s to former Common Council President George K. Arthur, who was in the middle of the debate to end mayoral appointments to the School Board and install the new system of directly electing its members. Arthur noted the major difference between the old system and that proposed by Peoples-Stokes is the former requirement of Common Council confirmation of mayoral appointees to the board.

At the time, Arthur said he and others like former board member Alfreda W. Slominski (later the county comptroller) favored directly electing members.

“We got rid of it because it didn’t give people the opportunity to select their members,” he said. “It was the right decision, and the School Board ever since has always been a separate entity. They didn’t want the board to get involved in partisan politics.”

Arthur, who was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 1985, said he envisions entirely different mayoral campaigns should managing the schools emerge as an issue.

“When you add the element of education to it, you’ve got a whole different thing,” he said, “and people get very intense about the whole issue.”