Next month, Albany lawmakers have to decide whether to renew the law that put Mayor Michael Bloomberg in charge of the city’s public schools.Legislators have spent much of this year holding hearings on the issue. Supporters of the mayor credit him with school improvement; but critics claim he’s abusing his authority. Much of the controversy has to do with an obscure panel that meets once a month. In the summer of 2002, Albany gave Mayor Bloomberg something previous mayors had only dreamed about: control over the nation’s largest school district. Finally, the mayor could appoint the Chancellor, not the Board of Education. He wouldn’t have to fight any more with board members who could reject his proposals. The board was replaced with a new Panel for Educational Policy, an advisory body. And most of its 13 members would be appointed by the mayor and answer directly to him.
Bloomberg was in great spirits that July when he announced the seven educators and business leaders he’d appointed to the panel.
'Let me remind you that unlike the past Board of Ed, these members are all volunteers. They do not get a salary. They do not get a car and driver. They don’t get all of those other perks (laughter). We didn’t tell you that?'
It was a light-hearted moment. But the mayor grew serious when a reporter asked him how much independence his panel members would be allowed to exercise.
'Their job is to give advice to the chancellor. Not advice to the press. I do not expect to see their names ever in the press answering a question either on the record or off the record. That’s exactly what’s wrong with the current system right now. And it’s not going to happen. It has not happened elsewheres in this system and I would not tolerate it for 30 seconds.'
The mayor was true to his word. In 2004, Bloomberg removed three panel members right before they could vote against his plan to stop promoting third graders who scored poorly on state exams.
Since then, education groups and parents routinely refer to the panel as a rubber stamp for the mayor. But one former legislator who co-wrote the law putting Bloomberg in charge of the schools says that wasn’t its intention.
"While it was certainly the intent of the state legislature and the governor in 2002 to provide significant mayoral authority, it certainly was not the intent to provide mayoral autonomy."
Steve Sanders is former Chairman of the State Assembly’s Education Committee. He’s now lobbying for the New York State School Boards Association, which worries about the precedent in giving a city mayor so much power. Sanders says the 2002 law was designed so the panel could provide real oversight of the mayor’s leadership. But he says Bloomberg is violating the spirit, if not the letter of the law, by not using the panel as a real sounding board.
A New York Times analysis found the mayor’s seven appointees miss, on average, a quarter of the monthly meetings. Three of them were absent at last month’s meeting in the Bronx, where several parents testified that there weren’t enough seats in the new construction and renovation plan. Josh Karan came from Washington Heights to address the meeting.
"Seven schools still have trailers, we have buildings without gyms, auditoriums, art rooms, lunch at 10 a.m."
A few minutes later, the panel’s chairman, Chancellor Joel Klein, called for a vote on the $11.3 billion capital plan
It passed with only one dissenter, Patrick Sullivan.
Sullivan is the Manhattan Borough president’s appointee to the panel, and often the lone dissenter. Each borough president gets an appointee. Sullivan says the lopsided vote shows why the law needs to be clarified to give panel members more oversight over matters like contracts and the school construction budget.
"The key thing is everybody understands there’s limited resources and prioritization. But we have to have a real planning process with a real needs assessment and explain this is how we determine how many seats are needed in what parts of the city and it’s just not there."
There are several proposals for strengthening the panel. The teachers union and a group called the Parent Commission believe the mayor should no longer appoint a majority of its members. Harlem State Senator Bill Perkins thinks this would be good for democracy.
"If you can’t but mimic the mayor then you are denying the public that alternative voice, that alternative idea, that kind of debate that our democracy is built on."
But Mayor Bloomberg and his supporters argue the public schools are NOT a democracy. That was the problem with the old board of education, says Bloomberg, which was dominated by special interests.
"The bottom line is when you have these committees, what happens invariably is somebody doesn’t like change, change is scary. And with the more people you have more likely you’re going to have one person who doesn’t like any given change. And I can’t think of any change that would have passed if you go by committee if you go back to the old Board of Ed days."
Bloomberg says the current system is working and the rising test scores are proof. He also notes that President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has endorsed keeping mayoral control in New York.
But New York’s model of mayoral control has fewer checks and balances than in other cities. Boston, Chicago and Oakland, for example, all have mayoral control but their school boards get to pick the superintendent – and in Oakland some board members are elected. Joseph Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, wrote a book called “When Mayors Take Charge.” Viteritti concludes that the mayor of New York should control the Panel for Educational Policy. But its members should have fixed terms, so they can debate issues without the fear of being removed.
"I think it’s important to have a board that reviews policies and that requires the chancellor to explain policies in a public forum and have an open discussion about them and have hearings about it. I mean, one of the things that the old Board of Education did right, and there weren’t many, was that there was always a public discussion about issues."
Viteritti was on a committee appointed by the Public Advocate to study mayoral control. It also called for giving either the state or city comptroller more power to audit the school system. And it recommended that community education councils, or local school boards, have more power in approving superintendents and the opening and closing of schools. Parents have complained about feeling shut out.
Albany lawmakers will decide next month on whether to renew the law or amend it. Both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith have said they want to keep the mayor’s majority on the Panel for Educational Policy. But Queens Assemblyman Rory Lancman says lawmakers are considering other changes to provide more parental input because they’re getting an earful from their constituents.
"When parents call my office or talk with me about their child’s education it’s at a much greater intensity than it is when they’re talking about garbage pickup or state of their parks. And parents want an opportunity to be involved in the decision making process regarding their kids education."
Lancman says that should be a warning to Mayor Bloomberg. If he doesn’t give some ground to parents, lawmakers could make a deal without him because local politicians are the ones most likely to feel the wrath of the voters.