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Robert Jackson takes a last, passionate stand on mayoral control

City Council Member Robert Jackson at an Assembly hearing on mayoral control earlier this year. (Via GothamSchools Flickr) A City Council hearing today on mayoral control became a chance for a chief critic of the power structure to lay out his concerns — a kind of last stand as top lawmakers and advocates move to a more moderate compromise.

The state’s top two lawmakers have embraced keeping a majority of power with the mayor, and their statements led union president Randi Weingarten to back away from a push to yank that majority.

But Council member Robert Jackson, who chairs the education committee and served on his district’s community school board for 15 years, did not appear to be affected by the changing tide at today’s hearing.

For more than six hours, he fielded testimony from people explaining how they have been hurt under mayoral control: schools phased out without consultation from the Department of Education, charter schools operating with better supplies than traditional public schools, and the powerless feeling of serving on the new generation of school boards, Community Education Councils.

Few expressed support for the current system. During cross examinations, Jackson offered his own criticism of mayoral control. At times, he could barely restrain his frustration.

“Talk is cheap,” he told Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, saying he had requested information from the DOE several months ago and had yet to obtain it.

“I wish you’d pick up the phone and call me,” Klein responded.

“I should not have to pick up the phone! It’s a continuous problem,” Jackson shot back.

Later, Jackson asked Klein and Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott whether they felt they had made any mistakes.

Walcott said that changing the bus routes in winter was a mistake, but Klein held firm on his decision to dissolve the 32 school districts that the Bloomberg administration has essentially done away with.

Jackson replied by accusing Klein of shutting out and marginalizing parents. In his prologue to the hearing, he made a pitch for the proposal Council members submitted several months ago, arguing that the mayor’s power should be checked by beefing up the City Council’s advisory role over schools, a model lawmakers called “municipal control.”

Jackson also said that rising math scores are good, they aren’t a reason to renew mayoral control. “Many districts across the state have seen improvement in test scores… and they don’t have mayoral control,” he said, citing Buffalo as an example.

As the room emptied out and the hours went by, even those who largely agreed with Jackson came in for questioning.

“Are you paid to advocate?” he asked several speakers from different parent advocacy groups. Parents laughed at the question, saying, no, they weren’t.

“Why are you so angry?” Jackson asked Vincent Wojsnis, a UFT Chapter leader and a teacher at M.S. 399, who had just delivered blistering testimony about the Department of Education’s decision to phase out his school.

“We’re angry because we haven’t been treated justly here,” Wojsnis said.

“I can understand it, too, Jackson replied.

By the hearing’s end, Jackson was the least exhausted person in the room. “If you ask me what I think is going to happen, I think mayoral control will continue,” he said. Adding that despite this, the parents at the meeting had inspired him, perhaps because they reminded him of himself.

“They’re spending their own money, that’s real parent engagement and power,” he said. “When I came up, same thing.”