New York State School Boards Association

NYC school control shouldn't be annual issue

by Timothy G. Kremer

On Board Online • June 12, 2017

Timothy G. Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

It's that time of year for much pomp and circumstance. No, not the graduation march across the stage. I am referring to the annual fuss that occurs in Albany at the end of every legislative session.

Each year, an all-absorbing "crisis" seems to emerge during the waning days of the session. This year, as it has for the past two years, the dispute is over mayoral control of public schools in New York City, which directly affects the five boroughs of New York City only but indirectly stymies the prospects of nearly all other legislation that impacts school districts throughout the state. Until the mayoral control dispute is resolved (at least for this year), most other issues that matter to school leaders outside of New York City are on the proverbial back burner.

The 2002 state law authorizing mayoral control of New York City schools expired for the first time in 2009. At that time, state lawmakers granted former Mayor Michael Bloomberg a six-year extension. Current NYC Mayor Bill DiBlasio has been granted two single-year extenders (in 2015 and 2016). The current mayoral control law expires on June 30, 2017. Without an extender, school governance in New York City would revert back to the pre-2002 model, which calls for one central board of education and 32 districts with elected governing boards.

Mayoral control in New York City means that the mayor appoints eight of the 13 members of the board of education, officially known as the Panel for Educational Policy, as well as the schools chancellor, currently Carmen Farina. There are now 32 community education councils and several citywide councils with advisory responsibilities.

It is worth noting that NYSSBA opposed mayoral control legislation in 2002 and successfully advocated for important amendments in 2009. Since then, however, we have come to recognize that mayoral control in New York City can work, as long as several factors remain in alignment:

  • A committed and skilled mayor willing and able to spend substantial amounts of time and political capital to reform schools and be held accountable for results.
  • A competent school board, whose members are appointed to set terms, thus allowing them a level of autonomy and independent thinking.
  • A strong local economy.
  • A stable coalition of supporters of mayoral control, especially constituencies that will elect and/or re-elect the mayor.
  • A sound education plan supported by the mayor, the school leadership team and the unions.
  • A skilled staff with a relentless focus on improving student achievement.
  • Good data that can be used to make smart decisions, measure progress and hold people accountable.

Unfortunately, the pros and cons of a mayoral-control governance system are not driving the current legislative dispute. Rather, mayoral control has become a radioactive bargaining chip tied to raising the New York City charter school cap, a tax credit in support of private and parochial schools and a circular debate about the school system's financial transparency. It is no surprise that the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led Assembly don't see eye-to-eye on any of these issues, and lawmakers keep volleying back and forth competing proposals for one-year, three-year and five-year extenders, knowing full well that each measure is a non-starter intended only to frustrate the opposition.

This year, there is a new wrinkle: tying mayoral control to local tax extenders. This presumably would box in the Senate Republicans because the many upstate counties they represent are financially dependent on their ability to collect sales tax revenue.

The debate about whether the mayor - any mayor - should control a public school system as large and consequential as New York City is a critical one. But we should understand what this discussion is really about - power, control, politics and money. This fight is not about what matters most - leadership in support for students - and certainly it is not about the value of a publicly-elected board of education, the governance model that works well everywhere else in the state.

So, while lawmakers obsess over the future of mayoral control, many school boards are forced to wait for action on matters that are critically important to your school communities.

I never thought I would be the one advocating for a multi-year mayoral control extender, but for your sake, I am now. Let's hope the outcome is worth that wait.

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