Nearly four months after taking office, Mayor Eric Adams has yet to fill every seat on the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which is charged with approving education department contracts and certain policy decisions including signing off on school closures.
Last month, Adams named a slate of nine appointees — the total number allocated to the mayor on the 15-person panel. But just hours after that announcement, Adams forced one of his own appointees to resign after her anti-gay writing came to light. So far, a replacement panel member has not been publicly announced.
“We are narrowing in on a few promising candidates that are reflective of the diversity of our great city and the voices of parents,” City Hall spokesperson Amaris Cockfield wrote in an email. She said a replacement will be announced in the coming weeks.
Typically, a single vacancy would not garner much notice, as the mayor still controls the majority of the panel’s seats and historically, the mayor’s appointees nearly always vote to approve the administration’s proposals. But, at last month’s meeting, an $82-million contract to provide schools with temporary staffing failed 6-5, with two mayoral appointees declining to support the contract, a rare and embarrassing setback.
On Wednesday, the PEP is set to reconsider that contract with 22nd Century Technologies. According to city documents, temporary staffing previously has helped the education department with a range of needs: from providing teaching artists to help staff dance programs to helping run call centers that responded to positive COVID cases in schools. Tom Allon, a mayoral appointee who voted against the contract, declined to discuss his vote last month or how he plans to vote Wednesday. Alan Ong, a mayoral appointee who abstained from last month’s vote, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Although the fate of that contract may not have a major impact on the nation’s largest school district, the mayor’s management of the PEP has raised eyebrows among many observers, especially as Adams is pressing to extend his control of the city’s schools for four more years.
“By not having a full board it kind of gives a message that it’s not a priority,” said Lori Podvesker, who served on the PEP under former Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It’s low-hanging fruit.”
Failure to appoint a full slate of members to the PEP is just the most recent of a recent string of missteps.
After Adams took office, he failed to name any appointees whatsoever, forcing a postponement of the PEP’s first meeting, a possible violation of a state law requiring monthly meetings. When the panel finally did meet in February, the mayor’s appointees voted on school policy issues, even as city officials refused to provide basic information about who had cast those votes.
Finally, when City Hall formally announced Adams’ appointees to the PEP, they included some picks that immediately drew scrutiny, including the father of one of the mayor’s press secretaries. The selection of Rev. Kathlyn Barrett-Layne drew the most notice, however, because she had written that being gay is a sin and equated it to pedophilia. City Hall officials said they were unaware of her anti-gay positions and she swiftly resigned.
Those missteps come at an awkward moment for Adams because he is simultaneously making the case to state legislators that they should grant an extension of his authority over the city’s school system, which expires at the end of June. The sweeping authority to control the city’s schools was first granted to Michael Bloomberg in 2002.
In negotiating the future of mayoral control, some advocates are looking for changes to the PEP, including altering its composition or instituting term limits to give appointees more independence, as mayors can remove their own members at any time if their votes are out of step with the administration.
Tweaks to the PEP’s structure are not without precedent. In 2019, the state legislature added a parent representative to the panel, but also added a mayoral appointee to offset it.
During his “State of the City” speech Tuesday, Adams pushed hard against any structural changes to his control of the city’s schools and said he should be given a chance to run the system.
“You have a public school mayor that happens to be African American. You have a public school chancellor that happens to be African American,” Adams said. “Give us mayoral accountability.”
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.