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UFT making governance a priority in Albany as new mayor nears

With the city nine months from getting a new mayor, the United Federation of Teachers is gearing up to ask legislators to ensure that Mayor Bloomberg’s brand of school governance cannot be repeated.

The union wants legislation introduced that would significantly constrain the mayor’s education authority. The proposal closely resembles the union’s school governance platform from 2009, when the law giving control of the city’s schools to the mayor was last revised. But it comes at a time when all of the leading mayoral candidates have pledged to move away from Bloomberg’s imperious approach to school governance.

Some pieces of the proposal, such as to give elected parent councils authority over decisions about where to locate schools, would be accomplished by legislation already pending in Albany. The rest — including stripping the majority vote on the Panel for Educational Policy from the mayor, would require a new bill.

“Our lobbyists in Albany understand that this is now going to become a piece of legislation” in the current legislative session, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in an interview.

The proposal, which will become official when the union’s Delegate Assembly signs off on it, comes two years before the the law giving control of the city’s schools to the mayor is set to expire. But Mulgrew said now is the time to constrain the mayor’s power.

“We have a system of governance that no one ever thought would be as abused as it has been,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for us to not fight for something different so this cannot happen again.”

Since the legislature gave Bloomberg control of the city’s school in 2002, he has drawn criticism for ruling with a heavy hand and not including communities in decisions about them. Especially after a 2009 revision, the state’s school governance law requires that communities be given a chance to provide feedback about proposed policies, but the ultimate decision lies with the mayor and Panel for Educational Policy, whose members mostly serve at his will.

The leading mayoral candidates have all criticized the way Bloomberg has run the school system and pledged to change the tone at the Department of Education. But only Comptroller John Liu, who released a proposal for restructuring the Panel for Educational Policy last month, has committed to ceding any of the authority he is seeking.

A more common position is one former comptroller Bill Thompson has offered: “I still support mayoral control but it’s more about who the mayor is,” he said at a forum in November.

Responding to the UFT’s proposal today, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign released a statement that said only, “”We are opposed.”

Critics of the teachers union said the proposal would mark a regression for the school system.

“With its latest missive calling for the end of mayoral control of the schools, the union has made it clear that its vision of progress is to return New York City to the days of patronage, graft and corruption with a system that has no accountability whatsoever,” said Chandra Hayslett, communications director of StudentsFirstNY, in a statement.

But Mulgrew said the union was committed to preserving mayoral control, as it was in 2009. “People forget that the school boards were not working very well either,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to that.”

Instead, he said, the union just wants checks and balances on the mayor’s power. In other cities with mayoral control, he said, “Everybody else figured out you needed checks and balances.”

The recommendations were drafted by the union’s committee on school governance, which was reconstituted last fall after becoming dormant when mayoral control was renewed in 2009.

What the UFT is recommending:

Instead of appointing eight of the 13 Panel for Educational Policy members, the mayor would appoint only five. (The union endorsed that configuration in 2009, but then-President Randi Weingarten did not promote it.) Borough presidents would still appoint five. The remaining three slots would be filled by appointees of the comptroller, public advocate, and City Council speaker. Members would serve for three-year terms, not at the will of those who appointed them.

The mayor would choose a chancellor from three candidates selected by the PEP. The chancellor would have already have the credentials to become a superintendent in New York State, and he or she would have to be re-approved every two years.

Community Education Councils would have to approve school co-locations or relocations, as a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Wright would require.

District superintendents would regain some of the authority they lost over the course of the Bloomberg administration. The chancellor would pick superintendents from nominees put forth by Community Education Councils, and superintendents would serve three-year terms.

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