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Schools July 2, 2009  RSS feed

Law Giving Mayor Control Over City Public Schools Has Expired

Renewal Stalls Amidst Albany Turmoil
by Sam Goldman

With warring parties in the State Senate unable to reach a compromise on control of the chamber, the bill that would renew the law giving the mayor control over the New York City school system never came to a vote, allowing the law to expire yesterday, July 1.

Commonly referred to simply as "mayoral control," the current educational system was signed into law in 2002 at the behest of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It abolished the old Board of Education system created under Mayor John Lindsay in 1969 and created a city agency—the Department of Education—to oversee city schools.

The State Assembly had passed its version of the bill (A.8903-A, introduced by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) on June 17 by a 129-18 margin.

According to Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, the bill modifies the existing system to create a "mandatory public input process;" increase the power of School Leadership Teams; require a public vote when authorizing "significant changes in school utilization" or capital plans; and would tweak the Panel for Educational Policy, the governance body for the DOE.

The Senate's version of the bill, S. 5887, introduced by State Sen. Frank Padavan and co-sponsored by State Sen. Daniel Squadron of Brooklyn, remained in limbo, having been referred to the Rules Committee on June 15 and again on June 23 and June 29.

News outlets have reported that State Sen. John Sampson, who is viewed as succeeding State Sen. Malcolm Smith as Senate Democratic Conference Leader, is championing a competing bill (S.6052-A), which would give members of the Panel For Educational Policy fixed two-year terms, something the mayor opposes.

"In our conference mayoral control is a controversial issue," Sampson told reporters, "and we would like some input."

On Tuesday, June 30, Bloomberg Press Secretary Stu Loeser released a statement on Sampson's refusal to bring the issue of mayoral control— as well as a bill that authorizes an increase in the sales tax—to the floor.

"Sen. John Sampson stated today that passing taxes necessary to preserve essential city services and avoid layoffs and a bill that would prevent New York City schools from returning to chaos were controversial," said Loeser. "They are not, and both enjoy the support of a bipartisan majority of State Senators.

"Both pieces of legislation— which already have the votes for passage— deserve to be brought to the floor for a vote," he continued. "That's democracy, and if the city's budget and public schools continue to be held hostage to the Senate's gridlock, it will cause real harm to New York families and the health of our city."

Sampson responded later that day with a short statement, saying, "[w]e may have different opinions on school governance, but we are firmly opposed to mayoral control of the Senate."

Under the mayor's control

School boards, which once held wide latitude on educational issues within their district, became Community Education Councils under mayoral control, and the system itself became more centralized.

Even the physical location of the agency was changed to befit its new status, moving from 110 Livingston St. in downtown Brooklyn to the former Tweed Courthouse at 52 Chambers St., near City Hall.

Under Chancellor Joel Klein (the DOE's only chancellor), the agency eliminated the practice of social promotion (moving students to the next grade level regardless of their grades), began to consolidate elementary, middle and high schools (with more buildings housing grades one to eight or six to 12), and promoted the existence of charter schools.

Over the past five years, opinions on the success of mayoral control have been mixed.

In testimony before the City Council on June 4, Chancellor Kelin told lawmakers that "85 percent of our fourth graders are meeting or exceeding math standards and almost 70 percent are meeting or exceeding English standards," as opposed to about 50 percent in both areas in 2002.

These increases extended to eighth grade, according to Klein: in 2002, "fewer than 30 percent" of eight-grades met English or math standards. Now, those numbers sit at 60 and 70 percent, respectively.

In addition, graduation rates have gone up over 60 percent in 2008 for the first time.

However, these advances have come with accusations that the DOE is tone-deaf to parent and community complaints, especially when it comes to the construction of new schools. For example, a plan to construct a new high school in Maspeth has come under fire from many residents and civic groups who feel it would be a burden on the neighborhood.

Aftermath

According to reports, the reconstituted Board of Education met on July 1.

Mayor Bloomberg appointed two deputy mayors, Patricia Harris and Edward Skyler, to the seven-member board, while Queens Borough President Helen Marshall appointed Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott.

Joining them will be Deputy Staten Island Borough President Edward Burke, the pick of his boss, James Molinaro; Jimmy Yan, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's legal counsel; Carlo Scissura, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz' chief of staff; and former Hostos Community College president Dr. Dolores Fernandez, who was chosen by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz. Jr.

"We here in the city are moving to protect our children," said Bloomberg at a Wednesday press conference with the reconstituted Board of Education and the five borough presidents.

He announced that Walcott, a former teacher, was elected Chairman of the Board, and that the Board of Education's first order of business was to reappoint Klein as Chancellor.

In addition, he stated that elections for school boards will not be held until 2010.

"These are Band-Aids, not solutions," he warned, urging the State Senate to pass Padavan's bill, and later stressing, "The old structure did not work, and nobody wants to go back to that."

He also noted that summer school classes have begun and will continue throughout the season regardless of the state of the city's education system.

"The students who showed up today need some extra help," he said, "and they are getting the help they deserve."

"The disruption in Albany should not come into the classroom," said Markowitz, while Marshall added that "we have a duty to those children. They expect us to rule in their favor."

Bloomberg added that the state's failure to authorize the sales tax increase leaves a hole in the city budget that would mean cuts from all city agencies, including education.