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With clock ticking, mayoral control debate recedes for now

Stacks of legislation sit on the desks of Assembly Members on Sunday night, just days before the official legislative session is scheduled to end.
Stacks of legislation sit on the desks of Assembly Members on Sunday night, just days before the official legislative session is scheduled to end.
Geoff Decker

With just days left in the legislative session, renewing mayoral control and lifting the state’s cap on charter schools seem like distant priorities in negotiations among state lawmakers.

It is still too early to know what will make it into a final “big ugly” deal between the state’s three legislative leaders after a tumultuous six months that have seen multiple power-shifting scandals and aggressive changes to New York’s education laws. And while the session is officially scheduled to end at midnight on Wednesday, lawmakers have acknowledged it could be extended if necessary.

But as the legislature prepared to enter its final official week of the year, the two education issues that have received the most attention in New York City were barely being discussed in Albany.

The law giving Mayor Bill de Blasio broad decision-making power over New York City schools is set to expire at the end of the month. Renewing it for at least three years has been de Blasio’s top education priority this year, but the issue is taking a backseat for the next 24 hours as lawmakers haggle over city housing laws with an even nearer expiration date.After meeting with Democrats in the Assembly for several hours on Sunday night, Speaker Carl Heastie said that he had not changed his position that mayoral control should be renewed for three years. The Senate has proposed a one-year renewal tied to increasing the charter school cap.

“I’m not negotiating that,” Heastie said. “I’ve pretty much said that’s non-negotiable. We passed the bill and I’ve moved on from that.”

Meanwhile, expanding the number of charter schools allowed to open in the state, and particularly in New York City where all but one of the remaining available charters is controlled by the State Education Department, has not been the subject of negotiations in recent days.

On Sunday, the charter cap was the lesser-discussed of two school-choice proposals brought up during the Assembly’s closed-door meeting, according to two members who attended. Instead, they debated what to do about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed education tax credits, which would help students from less-affluent backgrounds and their families afford private school by financing full or partial tuition.The proposal has divided the Assembly, with some Democrats expressing support because it would help religious schools in their districts, while others vehemently oppose it as a diversion of public funds meant for public schools.

Cuomo added a new wrinkle to those talks on Sunday afternoon when he proposed setting aside $100 million in a special fund, which he would control, for cash-strapped school districts north of New York City. The unusually timed proposal represented a reversal for Cuomo, who has argued that systemic reforms to teacher evaluations and tenure laws are more important than adding funding to improve low-performing schools.

Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, said he sensed the proposal was a “quid pro quo” proposal linked to passing the education tax credits — Cuomo denied any such linkage — but some Assembly Democrats said they were open to such a trade-off.

Anthony Brindisi, who represents the Utica City school district in upstate New York, considered one of the most underfunded districts in the state, said he personally raised a version of Cuomo’s proposal with the governor less than a month ago. But he said he did not expect it to come up for discussion until next year’s budget negotiations.

“I said to him then that some of us could be supportive to providing tax relief to private schools, but that we have to address the underlying issues of public school funding in the poorest districts,” said Brindisi.

“It kind threw all of us for a curve,” Brindisi said of the governor’s weekend proposal.

Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan offered a counterproposal to Cuomo’s education tax credit on Friday, a bill that would provide a small tax deduction for families that spend money on tuition, tutoring, supplies and other education-related expenses. The deduction would be available to families whose earned income is $120,000 or less and would cover up to $3,000 in spending per student.

Whereas the tax credit would provide a 75 percent reimbursement on donations up to $1 million, Nolan’s bill would amount to $205, at most, in deductions per student, according to Bob Bellafiore, a spokesman for a lobbying group pushing for Cuomo’s tax credits who criticized Nolan’s version. It also may not be enough for many of the Assembly Democrats who are in favor of the tax credits, said Assembly member Patricia Fahy.

“There might some interest from some of our members,” Fahy said of Nolan’s proposal, “but there’s still questions and concerns about it and I don’t think that it would appease the supporters of the full credit.”

But Heastie said that many Democrats in the Assembly remained unwilling to budge in their opposition to the tax credits.

“As I’ve been saying for months, the investment tax credit is just a very difficult issue for the conference,” Heastie said. “I’m hoping that’s not going to be the roadblock to us ending session productively.”

Senate Republicans were not in Albany on Sunday, although a bill released Friday night offered a glimpse at their starting point for negotiations over another education issue: delaying teacher evaluations. Majority Leader John Flanagan’s proposed legislation would delay evaluations by three months, giving all districts until Feb. 15, 2016 to submit their plans.

The proposal offers less time than the one-year delay passed by the Assembly earlier this year, and it also retains a funding penalty for districts that don’t submit plans on time, a provision removed from the Assembly’s version.

The Board of Regents will meet Monday to discuss regulations on the evaluations that have been proposed by the State Education Department, and lawmakers said they hoped the discussion would provide some clarity into how many districts could be able to delay implementing the new system.

“I’m hoping I’ll hear some encouraging news tomorrow,” said Fahy, who favors the one-year delay.

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