Updated — Mayor Bill de Blasio dug in his heels on the issue of mayoral control on Wednesday, urging state lawmakers to renew the law without making changes that would weaken his power over the city’s schools.
De Blasio was back in Albany to pressure lawmakers to renew the law that grants the mayor control over New York City education policy, which expires at the end of June. De Blasio said the current structure has allowed the city to implement its most important education initiatives, from the expansion of pre-kindergarten to the transfer of more power to superintendents.
The mayor has said he supports the three-year extension passed by the Assembly last week, while the state Senate late on Wednesday introduced its own one-year renewal that comes with significant checks. But de Blasio was not ready to accept any proposals offered in recent weeks that would limit his oversight in exchange, including those calling for more community control over school-space decisions.
“I think our current approach is working and I think it’s very inclusive,” de Blasio told reporters between meetings with state leaders in Albany. “I do think there’s many good and constructive ways to hear the voices of parents, and we’re doing that right now.”
A bill introduced by State Senator Jeffrey Klein this week would extend mayoral control for five years. But it would also reduce the mayor’s control of the city’s 13-member Panel for Educational Policy, which votes on co-location plans, new contracts and changes to the school regulations, by adding two members appointed by the city comptroller and the public advocate.
Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, is recommending that the mayor lose his majority rule altogether by allowed the mayor to appoint just seven of 17 panel members. She has also recommended that the Department of Education’s contracts be approved by the city comptroller, not the panel, and that elected parent councils have the final say over co-location proposals in their districts.
“No, I do not think CECs should have veto power over co-locations,” de Blasio said, referring to James’ proposal to bolster district Community Education Councils. “I think that would be a mistake.”
De Blasio said his administration has gone to great lengths to encourage parent involvement, pointing to an extra 40 minutes each week that teachers must spend interacting with parents under their new union contract. He also said he has encouraged independence from the people he has appointed to the panel, some of whom have voted to delay or nix some co-location plans.
But James, who earlier this year held a series of forums to solicit feedback on mayoral control, said she regularly heard from “parents who feel disempowered.”
“Parents want a seat at the table,” James said.
The landmark mayoral-control legislation dismantled the city’s 32 local school boards in 2002 and granted then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg control after more than three decades of decentralized rule. When the law last expired in 2009, lawmakers eventually extended mayoral control by six years, but not before adding a new checks and balances. One change, which required the city to hold public hearings and study the impact of school closures or co-locations before they can be approved, ended up derailing the Bloomberg administration’s agenda for a year.
It’s those kinds of legislative tweaks that de Blasio is looking to avoid this time around. Giving up contract oversight could hinder the city’s ability to quickly approve funds for its thousands of pre-K programs each year, for example, especially if that power would be ceded to Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has scrutinized the city’s pre-K deals.
De Blasio’s stance represents a shift from how he talked about mayoral control over the last six years as a city councilman and public advocate, when he was an outspoken opponent.
“We saw parents come out in huge numbers every month, whatever was on the agenda,” de Blasio said of his time on District 15’s school board. “Because they understood that it was their opportunity to hear what was going on and address actual decision-makers, unscripted. No rules; they could ask any question they wanted, demand answers. And I thought it was very healthy for the system.”
De Blasio has recalled that time differently over the last few months.
“If it’s not renewed, we’re going to go back to chaos and corruption,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “It’s as simple as that. I’ve experienced it firsthand. You know, I saw what that system was like. I was involved. It was a horribly dysfunctional system.”
That evolution has exposed de Blasio to criticism from some allies: “Mayor de Blasio is not different from any other elected official who refuses to relinquish power,” James said.
After meeting with reporters, de Blasio spent about 45 minutes with new Senate Republican majority leader John Flanagan, whose support the mayor needs.
“What I care about is, is there an open door? Is there a real substantive dialogue? And I think today was a good example that yes, there is,” de Blasio said.
Flanagan has said he wants to tweak the mayoral control law, but offered few specifics until after meeting with de Blasio on Wednesday. Legislation he has introduced includes a one-year extension that also raised the charter school cap, from 460 to 560 schools, and would require the state legislature to approve of the city’s operating budget.
The mayor will have some bipartisan backing as negotiations heat up. Senator Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island, said he “firmly” supported mayoral control, though he said he’s not opposed to just a one-year extension. Earlier in the day, de Blasio said that idea would turn mayoral control into “a political football.”
“For me, it’s just a matter of making sure that every year we have mayoral control,” Lanza said. “How we get there is less important to me.”
Mayoral control is one of several education issues that remain before the legislature before the session ends on June 17. Also on the table are proposed tax credits to subsidize private-school enrollment, raising the charter school cap, delaying changes teacher evaluations, and providing tuition assistance for undocumented students.