Friday, May 22, 2015

Buffalo Schools: Mayoral Control, Fact and Fiction

Several months ago, I described Buffalo as the State’s epicenter in the battle against the privatization forces that plan to “disassemble” our public school system.  The privatization movement has broad political, business and institutional support, as evidenced by:  the letter from New York State Regent’s Chancellor Merryl Tisch punctuating ongoing efforts to identify Buffalo as the poster child for “failing schools” ( ); Governor Cuomo’s use of the budget hammer to impose receivership in “failing districts” ( ); and most recently Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes push for mayoral takeover of Buffalo Public Schools.

It’s been in the works for a long time, but within the last few weeks the talk of mayoral control has inched toward reality in the form of a Bill submitted by Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes.  On Thursday evening (May 21, 2015), the Assemblywoman spoke about her proposed legislation to a room full of community stakeholders at the Delevan Grider Community Center.  During the public meeting ostensibly called for the purpose of a presentation to detail the New York State budget boondoggles secured by the Assemblywoman for her District and the city, she could not avoid the questions from audience members who wanted to hear about the Bill she submitted that same day.  While the Assemblywoman said she prefers to refer to her Bill as “mayoral intervention” rather than mayoral control, the bill; A#07680 is clearly introduced as: 

AN ACT to amend the education law, in relation to mayoral control of the city school district of the city of Buffalo (A07680) 
Here are a few of the points the Assemblywoman made about the impact of Mayoral control, followed by counterpoints I offer for consideration and further discussion.  In full disclosure, although I’ve looked up the Bill and printed a copy, I have not had the time to read it thoroughly, so this synopsis relies on what I heard from Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes about why the Bill is important and necessary as well as what she thinks it will accomplish. 


The Assemblywoman:  As preface, the Assemblywoman, a native Buffalonian, reminisced about her experience as a graduate of the Buffalo Public Schools and recalled the consistent leadership provided by Superintendents Manch and Reville.  She said that she sees mayoral “intervention” as an opportunity to change the internal construct of the District’s central structure and give the Mayor the authority to establish the right kind of leadership at the helm.  The Mayor will also appoint a nine member board, and a number of community advisory boards that would be issue oriented, e.g. English Language Learners, Early childhood education, general and mental health, and special education. Locating this authority with the Mayor would allow the public to hold him accountable for failure to make progress.

Me:  As a Buffalo Schools graduate, I too remember the halcyon days of Dr. Manch and Mr. Reville.  However, the educational landscape has changed dramatically in the last few years.  Research shows that the demands and pressures of the job have contributed in reducing the longevity of a Superintendent’s tenure to an average of 3 to 5 years.  So, there is no guarantee that the Mayor’s appointee will have a longer tenure.  In fact, this legislation, slated to have a two year life span initially, will coincide with the end of the current Mayor’s tenure.  A new Mayor may want to appoint his/her own handpicked candidate.
Absent any extraordinary accountability measures, the public has the same option to hold the Mayor responsible that it does to hold current Board members accountable; that’s the vote.  Board members have either a three year or five year term, while the Mayor has a four year term.  It’s not clear what the advantage is or how the Mayor will be held more accountable than elected Board members.

Board Members:

The Assemblywoman:  the Mayor will appoint all members of the Board as well as those of the Advisory Councils.   

Me:  The Bill does lay out criteria but in my cursory review there does not appear to be any great distinction in the personal attributes or professional abilities, compared to current elected Board members, which these Mayoral appointees would bring to the table.
In addition to being principal policy makers and having fiduciary responsibility for the District, a major responsibility of Board members is to hire and supervise the Superintendent.  In fact, by Education Law, the Superintendent is the Board’s only employee.  The relationship between the individual in that office and Board members is of fundamental importance to the operation of the District.  There is a risk of having a Superintendent who reports to the Mayor and also has reporting responsibilities to a Board; e.g.  the age old problem of the conflict of having two masters.  Working out this relationship will be critical.

 Superintendent Accountability:

The Assemblywoman:   The Superintendent will be required to provide quarterly reports to the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, State Education Department and the public.  Presumably this would enhance the accountability by creating layers of institutional monitors and allowing for quick changes of course if the Superintendent is not producing statistics aligned with progress.

Me:  Three years ago, former State Ed Commissioner John King appointed the Distinguished Educator.  This mandated consultant was required to provide quarterly reports as part of a plan to improve priority schools.  Frankly there is little evidence to demonstrate that any progress has been made as a result of this mandate.  She produced quarterly reports, which were submitted to State Ed only to disappear in the “black hole” of that bureaucracy.  How will this situation be any different? 
Further, the expectation that significant educational progress is going to occur in one to two years is unrealistic, especially given the upheaval this change will cause.  As my colleague Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg observed, what this legislation will impose is a new “management system” that will do little to improve the education of the children in the District.

Finally, the Assemblywoman was asked what stakeholders assisted in the development of this Bill.  Although she refused to provide individual names, she said she consulted with a number of groups including the District Parent Coordinating Committee, Educators, New York State United Teachers and the United Federation of Teachers.  It would seem that such important legislation that will have such a dramatic impact on the system required the input of a broad cross section of community stakeholders and an open period for comment. 

This legislation aims to impose a system that will further disenfranchise voters in favor of power brokers and political bureaucrats.  There is a very short window of time to voice our opposition to this legislation but if you are concerned you must contact your State Legislators and let them know your opinions.  That is the democratic process and we should reaffirm that it works. 

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