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Assembly members vote for mayoral control despite misgivings

ALBANY, N.Y. — After roughly an hour of debate, the State Assembly overwhelmingly voted to extend mayoral control until 2015 today, tossing the bill into the lap of a fractured and fractious Senate.

The bill, which was introduced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last Sunday, renews the current system of school governance, but with minor changes. It maintains the core of mayoral control, authorizing the mayor to appoint the majority of the 13 members to the citywide school board and giving him latitude to dismiss board members at his pleasure.

The bill does include some checks on the mayor’s power, such as beefed up oversight of the Department of Education’s data, and the requirement that all no-bid contracts over $1 million be approved by the PEP.

Before the vote, Assembly members rose and offered their own opinions on the bill, many of which followed the simple formula of praising mayoral control as a system of school governance, stating they would vote for the bill, and then listing their concerns. Many described the bill as imperfect but said they were satisfied that it addressed issues of transparency and parental involvement.

“Am I completely happy with it? Of course not,” said Assemblyman Peter Rivera. “But I think it’s a great beginning.”

Assemblyman Mark Weprin of New York City said he thought mayoral control “makes a lot of sense,” but that elements of it aren’t working in his district, such as the role of the superintendent and the DOE’s “obsession” with test scores.

“I will not support this bill today because I would hate to leave the impression on people that things are hunky dory in the city of New York schools,” he said.

Other Assembly members said they are concerned that the bill does not support enough parental involvement. Several called for adding in public funds to train parents in political action and advocacy — an idea that two lobbying groups and the president of the teachers union, Randi  Weingarten, broadly endorsed on Monday.

Education committee chair Cathy Nolan responded to the concerns after the bill passed. “Most parent involvement happens at their child’s school. The bill enhances the role of parents by strengthening the School Leadership Team,” Nolan said. She also pointed out that the bill gives parents more say over school closings.

“We want to see bad schools restructured, but we don’t want to see parents crying on the news that their school is being arbitrary closed,” Nolan said.

Some lawmakers who had actively advocated for more checks on the mayor’s power ended the day by voting for Silver’s bill.

Assemblywoman Joan Millman, who voted against the bill in the education committee, voted to approve it this afternoon. Explaining her decision, she said she felt she had little choice.

“If we do nothing and we vote against it, then we have nothing. And this bill will sunset if we do nothing. And then New York City’s school system will be in total chaos.”

Millman said she was lobbying her senators to amend the bill, but was more optimistic that the Assembly would amend the city’s school governance system again before 2015. After the vote, Nolan said that though the law would sunset in 2015, the legislature could still make additional changes to the city’s school governance system before then.

Nolan’s decision to support the bill came despite fierce opposition from some of the groups she had worked closely with earlier this year. It also came despite her own very personal testimony against the Bloomberg administration’s school reforms during hearings she held in all five boroughs.

Nolan did not drop her criticisms today. At one point, she revived a storyline she often told during the hearings, describing her interactions with Chancellor Joel Klein’s department as “frustrating and disappointing.” According to Nolan, the DOE exhibited “dismissive contempt for the legislature” by withholding information.