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Liu proposes fixed terms, public nominations for PEP members

The city’s school board, used as a rubber stamp for mayoral proposals since 2002, would gain independence under a plan put forward today by Comptroller John Liu.

The plan makes Liu the first of the likely candidates for mayor to propose specific changes to the board, known since 2002 as the Panel for Educational Policy. Any changes would require the approval of the state legislature, which is next set to consider New York City’s school governance in 2015, to become permanent, but a new mayor could take some of the steps immediately upon taking office.

Whether and how to reform the panel is one of the stickiest questions that mayoral candidates face on education.

On the one hand, changing its structure would mean diminishing the mayor’s authority over the city’s schools. On the other, ceding some control would send a powerful signal that the new mayor intends to include parents and community members in decision-making about schools, something the Bloomberg administration has drawn fire for not doing.

Candidates have so far been closed-lipped about how they would handle the dilemma. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who formally announced his candidacy for mayor this week, said last April that the city should “not continue the status quo” but that he had not determined exactly how the panel should change.

Now, Liu — who has not yet formally declared his candidacy — has come down on the side of restructuring. Under his plan, the mayor would continue to pick eight of 13 panel members and each borough president would still appoint a public school parent — but many other features would change.

Instead of giving the mayor carte blanche to choose panel members, Liu would limit his or her picks — and those of the borough presidents — to people nominated by a selection committee made up of elected officials, community members, labor leaders, and educators. The committee would publicly screen candidates put forth by its members and the public and select two or three for each spot. Then the mayor would choose from the shortlisted options. Liu would not require the borough presidents to pick prescreened candidates, but they could.

Instead of serving at the will of the public official who appointed them, panel members would serve fixed four-year terms that could be ended only with “due cause.” Such a change would preclude a repeat of the “Monday Night Massacre,” when Bloomberg yanked panel members who said they would vote against his social promotion ban proposal in 2004.

And while the panel members currently serve on a volunteer basis and typically do not convene except at required monthly meetings, Liu would pay them a stipend and require them to sit on sub-committees focusing on different policy issues.

Finally, under Liu’s proposal, power to approve or reject the mayor’s pick for chancellor would move from the State Education Department to the panel, and chancellors would need to have “at least 10 years of successful experience as a public or private school educator.” Bloomberg received waivers from SED for each of his three chancellors because they did not meet a requirement that chancellors hold a superintendent’s license.

An architect of the original law giving control of the city schools to the mayor, former Assemblyman Steven Sanders, said he thought Liu was on the right track with some of his proposals but missed the mark on others.

“The notion that a mayor cannot find a qualified educator who is also a great administrator and innovator is simply absurd,” Sanders said, backing Liu’s proposal to require chancellors to have education experience. Sanders also said fixed terms would give panel members something he fought for and did not win in 2002: “some degree of independent thinking and oversight.”

But he said he thought Liu’s nominating process was not necessary. “Let the mayor appoint persons he likes and let the borough presidents do the same,” he said.

De Blasio and the other two Democratic candidates for mayor, City Council speaker Christine Quinn and former comptroller Bill Thompson, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Liu’s proposal or the structure of the PEP.

As comptroller, Liu is responsible for the city’s fiscal stewardship, and he released the report as part of a series in the “Beyond High School NYC” initiative, which aims to boost the number of city students who graduate from college and contribute to the city’s economy. A previous report in the series called for the city to spend $176 million a year on guidance counselors to help more students get into college.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately reflected some details of the comptroller’s proposal. It also said the changes would require legislative approval. In fact, a new mayor could make some of the proposed changes immediately.

Liu’s full report about the structure and responsibilities of the Panel for Educational Policy is below:

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