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Time short if mayor is to take over Buffalo schools

ALBANY – When state lawmakers in 1973 wanted to give Buffalo residents the power to elect members of the city’s School Board, they began their effort early in the legislative session.

The bill calling for a democratically elected School Board became public even before the session began, so early that it got the title of Assembly Bill No. 1.

Fast forward to 2015. Assembly Bill No. 7680, which calls for elimination of the current School Board and would give Mayor Byron W. Brown the sole authority to pick a new board and new superintendent, was introduced Thursday night – with just 12 days of the session remaining to act on the bill.

No public hearings have been held, and the legislation lacks key support in the Senate and has only one majority party member sponsoring it in the Assembly. Meanwhile, time is running out in this year’s session.

So how might the Buffalo mayoral control legislation get approved?

“The Big Ugly.”

That’s what legislators call the last-minute omnibus bills, which have a storied tradition in Albany. It is the method in which governors and lawmakers get approved controversial matters that can’t stand on their own merits by linking them in one bill with potentially dozens of unrelated and more favorable issues. So when they vote on the entire bill, most lawmakers feel obliged to approve the omnibus.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo regularly employs The Big Ugly strategy, and he is now working behind the scenes pushing for the Buffalo mayoral control bill that has created both optimism and concern, depending on which side of the issue that someone is on.

“There’s always that danger, and I think that’s part of the strategy of not having a bill printed until very late,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, an opponent of the push for mayoral control of the Buffalo Public Schools.

On the surface, the bill would appear dead. The legislative session at the Capitol ends June 17, and Albany fatigue has set in among many lawmakers anxious to leave Albany and forget a session that has seen the replacement of the Legislature’s two top leaders following federal corruption charges.

Moreover, only one member from a majority political party in either house – Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo – is actively and publicly pushing its passage.

The proposal’s key backers have engaged in what amounts to a campaign of making pitches mostly in private gatherings, emails and texts.

Yet the proposal is far from dead, in part because of the involvement of several political heavyweights from both the public and private sectors.

On the “pro” side of mayoral control, the most influential backer is Cuomo, who earlier this year called for mayoral control of the school systems in the state’s biggest cities if local mayors supported it.

There is Brown, whose political allies say he is deeply interested in taking control of the school system, though he is limiting how much he talks about the issue.

There is Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who officials say Cuomo has dispatched to personally reach out to lawmakers to persuade them to get on board with the idea.

And then there are some influential business executives – such as M&T Bank Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers, whose spokesman did not return a call – also pressing the idea to the point where they have suggested language for the legislation.

Concern about students

On the “anti” side are majority party lawmakers in both the Senate and the Assembly, who either oppose the plan or appear to need considerable convincing to get behind it.

The teachers union opposes it, and so does the New York State School Boards Association, both with considerable influence in Albany.

And then there is the Buffalo School Board, whose members are opposed to being ousted.

Where city residents stand is far from certain. And therein lies the biggest mystery.

If there is a theme for some opponents or fence-sitters regarding the push for mayoral control, it is a simple one: Slow down.

“We have a very short time before session is complete … and many of my constituents who haven’t asked for this haven’t had an opportunity to comment on this,” said Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo.

Kearns said that public meetings are needed and that perhaps a citywide referendum should take place – such as happened in 1973 when the State Legislature approved the current board election system.

The assemblyman said the mayoral control proposal gives “too much concentration in one person” of power over the school district. While the School Board’s ability to work together has been compromised at many times, Kearns said, Albany “should not make policy or laws based on personalities.”

Kearns also said Brown had an opportunity again this year to increase the level of city funds going to the school district, and he didn’t do it.

“He’s taken money away from the school system. If he really wanted to take control of the schools, this year’s budget could have shown that he’s all in,” Kearns said.

“I’m very hopeful that this is something we can put off until next year and have a discussion and give parents and teachers and citizens an opportunity to comment on this. It’s a huge structural change that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

The delay option does not sit well with Peoples-Stokes, sponsor of the mayoral control bill.

“I would suggest to you that no issue has been more vetted than the inadequacies and dysfunction of the Buffalo School District,” she said to those calling for slowing down the push for mayoral control. “Finally, we come up with a way to solve that problem, and now you want to start talking about it?”

The problems with poor high school graduation rates and young students not reading or having math skills at their grade levels is too urgent, she said. A decision on her bill should not be put off for another year, she said.

“When is it their turn?” she said of the students.

Brown is holding back

Peoples-Stokes said that Cuomo supports the idea but that he is not driving her efforts.

“The governor is not motivating me,” she said. “He didn’t call me and say, ‘Crystal, will you do this?’ He did call me when I said (mayoral control is needed), and he said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said I am, but he’s not out front. I know who’s out front. I know that’s me.”

The assemblywoman said she talks with Hochul on a regular basis about the effort, and she described Brown as being “very passionate” about wanting the school powers.

Why isn’t Brown more out front?

“The same reason most don’t want to talk in public in Buffalo. They get beat down,” Peoples-Stokes said.

She added that while she is a “little disappointed” that Brown has not taken a more active, public role in the push, she said she understands his strategy of sitting back “and not letting yourself be the target” of the opposition.

Unlike former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who ran in his first campaign partly on the idea of taking control of the city schools, Brown has only announced he wants the powers but has provided no details about how such a system might work under his administration. That apparent lack of resolve and passion concerns lawmakers.

And that makes a compelling case for holding off any mayoral takeover of the Buffalo schools until after the next mayoral election in 2017, they say.

Some Buffalo backers of the idea have suggested that this is a power fight among city officials. But Schimminger said suburban residents have a stake in the plan’s outcome, such as the quality of the future regional workforce coming out of the Buffalo schools. The assemblyman said that his suburban constituents have been calling him and that none of them has expressed support for the plan.

“I do not want to take away the right of the people to elect their own School Board members. And a mayoral-appointed board may very well not be a change for the better, but a change for the worse,” Schimminger said.

“There is also, I think, a fundamental respect that people have for a democratic system in which people make their own choices as to who serves on their Board of Education, as opposed to people be appointed by a chief executive who neither got elected for that purpose or has evidenced any interest in having the power to make those appointments.”

That Cuomo is involved in an effort that would lead to the ouster of Carl P. Paladino as a member of the Buffalo School Board is not lost on anyone in Albany.

Paladino ran a spirited, though unsuccessful, campaign for governor against Cuomo in 2010, and he continues to criticize the governor’s policies.

In an email, Paladino said the mayoral control effort has a 1-in-10 chance of passing the State Legislature, and if it does, it will be overturned by a court challenge.

Paladino did not mention Cuomo by name, saving his criticism for Peoples-Stokes, members of the School Board minority, Wilmers, other business executives and “the group of 18 liberal elitists trying to manipulate (the effort) from behind the curtain.”

Paladino, a member of the School Board majority, called the push for mayoral control an “attempt to remove from office reform-minded board members, elected specifically to change the direction of the (Buffalo schools)” and an “affront to the taxpayers and parents of Buffalo.”

‘Beirut on the Lake’

The Cuomo administration so far has not shown any desire to get publicly drawn into what is becoming a nastier confrontation in Buffalo, a city long known at the Capitol as “Beirut on the Lake.”

Cuomo made it clear in his January State of the State address that he would work with any big-city mayor who wanted control of their school system, said Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi.

“Mayor Brown has made it clear that he supports mayoral control,” Azzopardi said.

No members of the majority Senate Republican Conference are from Buffalo, and the minority Democrats in that chamber rarely can sponsor and get approved major legislation.

In the Democratic-led Assembly, three Democrats are from Buffalo: Peoples-Stokes, who backs the mayoral effort; Kearns, who opposes it now; and Sean M. Ryan.

Ryan’s stance has toughened, saying officials today must keep in mind the work of community groups in the 1970s to get a democratically elected School Board. Moreover, he said he now expects Brown to release a specific plan outlining “his vision for the district.”

“Once this detailed plan is released, I look forward to the mayor presenting his plan to the Legislature in Albany, and to the citizens of Buffalo, so that it can be properly vetted,” Ryan said.

“Involving the community is an important step before removing democratically elected board members through legislative fiat.”

How all that happens by June 17 is the question.