After suffering a beating from legislators who accused him of being rudely unresponsive to their concerns since taking office in 2003, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is taking the hint and reaching out.
In the last few weeks, Klein has walked Mark Weprin, a Queens lawmaker who is one of his sharpest critics on the Assembly’s education committee, through his Tweed Courthouse headquarters; sat down with a handful of other lawmakers; and made appointments with more, including the committee’s chairwoman, Catherine Nolan. He has also begun, through his staff, to send out prompt replies to lawmakers’ requests.
“We’re getting letters answered, we’re getting information that we’ve asked for,” a spokeswoman for Nolan, Kathleen Whynot, said. “We have a really good working relationship right now with some of the DOE staff, which has been a nice addition.”
Assembly members said the outreach began after they launched a series of five hearings on the subject of mayoral control — the governance structure that Klein strongly supports, but which several lawmakers have criticized as authoritarian. The state legislature handed the mayor control in 2002, but the law they wrote sunsets this year, and so many in Albany are rolling up their sleeves and hoping to revise it.
The hearings were a chance for citizens to give their thoughts on how they’d like the law changed (or not). They also became opportunities for the lawmakers to air their concerns. Several of the complaints had to do specifically with Klein and his staff, who lawmakers said frequently failed to respond even to basic questions and concerns. The complaints accelerated at a hearing held in Manhattan where Klein himself testified, sitting before a row of lawmakers who took turns rebuking him.
The chancellor began to get in touch with lawmakers just days after that Friday hearing. Daniel O’Donnell, an Assemblyman from Manhattan who deployed sarcasm and a few smirks during his interrogation, said his cell phone rang early into the very next week. The legislature was in session, so O’Donnell let the phone buzz. When he came out, he said, “There was a voicemail message from Joel Klein. I had to play it twice to make sure I was hearing that correctly.”
Weprin met with Klein at his office in Tweed Courthouse, just next door to City Hall. The men took a walking tour through Tweed, even stopping by a kindergarten class at the Ross Global Charter School, which is housed in Tweed’s bottom floor. They also sat down to talk about Weprin’s concerns with the mayoral control system. “He didn’t say great idea bad idea, but he was open to listening and said that we’ll talk about it and see if there are things we can agree on,” Weprin said. “So at least that’s different than saying, ‘We have a difference of opinion, we’re not budging.’”
Weprin said the extra attention from Klein is coming as a surprise to his colleagues — and he has a theory for Klein’s change in approach. “Micah Lasher’s fingerprints are all over this thing,” he said, referring to the school system’s newly hired lobbyist. “He seems like a young guy, but he’s pretty savvy on how to deal with human beings and legislators. I have a feeling he might have said, ‘Houston, there’s a problem here.’”
Lasher did not take credit for the meetings. “I think my sense of the chancellor is he’s a very accessible person, but he’s a busy guy,” he told me on the telephone this afternoon. “I have no idea what ships have passed in the night over years past. All I know is that in my brief time here, every time a legislator has reached out to him, he’s been very eager to hear their concerns.”
Amid mounting speculation that the mayor could sacrifice Klein for the sake of preserving mayoral control, the stakes for repairing his relationship with lawmakers could be high. Weprin named an even greater possible risk if Klein fails to work cooperatively: The law’s sunset could come and go without the main players reaching any consensus, and the school system could be sent back to a state almost no one seems to desire — the way it was before 2002, when a school board picked the chancellor and finger-pointing over responsibility was the main substance of education fights.
“I don’t want to make it look like we’re the gang that can’t shoot straight, but let’s face it. This requires an affirmative act by three groups: the Senate, the Assembly, and the governor,” he said. “If the’yre going to stick to their dotted I’s and their crossed T’s, we will defintely have a problem.”