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Senate leader: Questions about NYC schools spending fueled one-year mayoral control deal

Senate Republicans’ decision to make sure Mayor Bill de Blasio won only a one-year renewal of his control of New York City schools was prompted in part by the city’s spending on struggling schools, their leader said Thursday.

As the legislature prepared to vote on a bill that includes a host of education and housing issues Thursday evening, including the mayoral control extension, Senator John Flanagan offered the most expansive explanation yet for why Republicans stood in the way of giving de Blasio more time. He personally backed mayoral control, he said, but the city’s spending on education had not received enough scrutiny.

“The city of the New York needs a significant round of school aid, which they’re getting,” Flanagan said at a press conference at the Capitol in Albany. “And if it’s a $9 billion check, I think it’s within our purview and our responsibility to ask appropriate questions of, where is the money going?”

He took aim specifically at the city’s spending plan for its School Renewal program, which de Blasio announced in November as a $150 million, three-year initiative that would be used to prompt academic improvements and add support programs at 94 low-performing schools. The city has continued to allocate new resources to the program over the last few months, including by moving money from other summer and after-school programs.

“If you’re dealing with struggling schools and you’re coming up with money, $150 million, to run the program, where is that money coming from?” Flanagan said. “What school is it going to? Does that mean money is being wisely spent or potentially money being taken away from other areas of the city?”

The city now says it is now preparing to spend more than $370 million for the initiative over three years. That money will go toward new health clinics and mental-health services, paying teachers who volunteer to provide an extra hour of tutoring or instruction, new coaches for teachers and principals, and boosting school budgets, among other items.

Flanagan raised concerns about the city’s education spending earlier this month, and one Senate proposal would have required the city to report more information about its education budget to state officials. But, for all of Flanagan’s criticism, the final deal did not include those requirements.

Flanagan ticked off a number of other reasons for the Republicans’ resistance to a longer renewal of mayoral control, putting more emphasis on the de Blasio administration’s actions than any concerns about the merits of mayoral control itself.

Flanagan said he had tried to organize a series of public hearings on the issue earlier in the year, but that he “didn’t really have any cooperation.” Previously, a Senate hearing in New York City was scheduled for early March, but was postponed. Flanagan later said he would hold the hearings “as soon as the mayor and [New York City schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña] make themselves available.”) And he suggested that de Blasio had not done enough to work with the city’s Republican senators and Simcha Felder, a Democrat who votes with Republicans.

A de Blasio administration official disputed Flanagan’s account, saying that Flanagan’s office was told that both de Blasio and Fariña would be available for a hearing.

Flanagan was joined Thursday by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said that mayoral control would be more seriously discussed in the next legislative session. Cuomo said that would offer a chance for the school governance model to be considered for other cities.

“If it works in New York City, well maybe it would work in other cities across the state,” Cuomo said. “So next year I think we’re going to have the opportunity to visit it in a broader context. There are other cities that are now talking about it, thinking about it, upstate cities. And I think that’s a good conversation.”

But other lawmakers said they believed more personal factors were at play.

“Clearly there are some people who are concerned about who the mayor might be,” said Assembly member Deborah Glick. “That’s the issue.”

Despite having notoriously passive-aggressive relations with de Blasio, Cuomo again called him a “personal friend of mine.” Asked why he criticized the mayor anonymously, referring to news stories this week that quoted an unnamed Cuomo official, Cuomo said, “It’s a little faster to talk off the record, you know?”

Glick added that she doubted that extending mayoral control for just one year would prompt a productive debate.

”No, I don’t have any hope that there will be any thoughtful discussion about governance,” Glick said.

Flanagan and Heastie said that lawmakers would vote on a host of legislative issues simultaneously later Thursday night. Legislative language was released to the public and shared with lawmakers for the first time Thursday afternoon, shortly after Cuomo said he would waive the typical three-day public review period for legislation.

The legislation contains few differences from the “framework” deal that Cuomo, Heastie, and Flanagan laid out Tuesday. It does include two changes that charter-school supporters wanted: Now, charter schools can favor employees’ children in lotteries, and charter schools can employ significantly more uncertified teachers.

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