Mayors in most major New York cities readily acknowledge that public education is the single-most important issue affecting the future of their communities – and they aren’t afraid to get involved.
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner interviewed the finalists when the school board there was looking for a new superintendent last year.
In Rochester two years ago, then-Mayor Robert Duffy pushed for mayoral control of the schools – an effort that stalled in the State Legislature – before he headed to Albany to serve as lieutenant governor.
Downstate, the Yonkers mayor this year introduced plans for an Education Redesign Team, calling education a top priority of his.
While mayors in other cities are among the most vocal advocates for improving education in their school districts – some to the point of irking others because they are so outspoken about their schools – Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown seems to go out of his way to avoid talking about education.
Case in point: Brown declined to comment for this story.
The Buffalo News made several interview requests over three weeks to the mayor’s spokesman, Michael DeGeorge – one request in person, half a dozen via email and one via text message.
DeGeorge responded favorably to the initial in-person request and asked the reporter to follow up via text or email. He then responded to those various written requests by saying the mayor was too busy and already had interviews lined up with other reporters; promising – and failing – to email the following day to schedule an interview; and ignoring three other emails. He finally promised to “check tomorrow and let you know” – something he also did not do.
Although the mayor was too busy to talk about public education during the past three weeks, he did find time to talk with Buffalo News reporters about at least nine other issues. Among them: a city crossing guard’s 60 years of service, the arrest of a shooting suspect, the prospects of a downtown casino, and the increase in business this summer at a waterfront restaurant.
Brown also had time in the past three weeks to participate in several photo ops, including attending the kickoff of Hispanic Heritage Month, standing next to the lieutenant governor at a news conference announcing new trails along Lake Erie, and appearing at a ribbon-cutting at the University at Buffalo.
In other cities, mayors frequently use their bully pulpit to lead the charge for a community effort to improve the schools.
In Albany, Mayor Jerry Jennings frequently points to education as the top issue affecting his city.
“I don’t have time to run the schools, but I do think that it’s important that any mayor in any city is part of what’s going on in the schools,” Jennings said recently in a video online. “I talk to mayors across the country, and their biggest challenge is, ‘OK, well, how do we maintain or get a higher graduation rate for our kids?’ ”
In Buffalo, Brown briefly emerged from his characteristic silence about education about a year and a half ago, when the District Parent Coordinating Council organized a one-day boycott of the schools. The mayor attended more than one meeting of the parent group and promised to take his cue from the parents.
During a visit to Albany last year, Brown floated the idea of mayoral control of the schools, but that never translated into any legislative proposal. Under pressure from state officials, the business community and others, the mayor convened an education summit of local and state stakeholders. The group met twice, with no concrete outcomes.
Since then, Brown has generally slipped back into avoiding talking about the schools.
Some say his reluctance to talk about education is typical of many elected officials who are loath to say anything that might suggest they are responsible for the schools – urban education is a massive challenge, and they don’t want to be blamed for any failure to improve schools.
Others say Brown’s low profile on school issues isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“My take on it is that silence is good,” said Georgia Asciutto, executive director of the Conference of Big Five School Districts, which lobbies for Buffalo and other major districts in the state. “I haven’t seen too many mayors rallying around and calling press conferences to support their superintendents, other than Bloomberg. When they are vocal, it’s negative. Perhaps being quiet does not mean you are not supportive – it means everything is working well.”
Those familiar with the mayor’s work say he regularly cites the “Reading Rules! Kids Summer Reading Challenge” as his signature contribution toward improving education in the city. Each student who reads seven or more age-appropriate books and writes a summary of each one receives prizes such as free passes to the zoo, books, T-shirts and boxes of cereal.
Superintendent Pamela C. Brown says she’s had conversations with the mayor and has “every reason to believe our collaboration will be productive.”
The major joint initiative to date, she said, has been the summer reading challenge.
“I was just in attendance a couple of weeks ago when we were celebrating the results of the summer reading challenge that his office sponsors every year,” the superintendent said. “We want to support that on an even higher level going forward.”
Brown launched the program in 2001, when he was a state senator. In 2010, more than 1,000 students completed the challenge, according to the mayor’s re-election website. There are 32,000 students in the Buffalo Public Schools, and 7,000 city students enrolled in charter schools.
The superintendent said she hopes to partner with the mayor on several other initiatives. The one she specifically cited was her plan to launch a citywide campaign to increase student attendance, although she did not offer specifics on what the campaign would entail or what the mayor’s involvement would be.
When Mayor Brown ran for re-election in 2009, he told a Buffalo News reporter in an interview about his contributions to education in the city. In addition to the summer reading program, he cited his efforts to clean up neighborhoods around the schools and his “stewardship” of the schools reconstruction project.
Brown also took much of the credit for increasing local aid to city schools by $2 million, to $70.8 million, during his first year in office. He said he did not advocate for more because he wanted to bring stability to city finances.
He added: “I absolutely believe we have to increase our commitment to public education.” What he didn’t mention was that during his second year in office, the city’s contribution to the schools dropped by more than $400,000 and hasn’t changed since.
In 2007, the State Legislature approved a measure requiring the state’s largest cities to contribute at least as much to their school districts each year as they had the previous year. Since then, the city’s contribution to schools has remained exactly the same every year.
In the meantime, the district’s budget has increased $218 million, or more than 30 percent – meaning that the city’s contribution accounts for an increasingly smaller share of the overall district budget.
School Board members over the past several months have expressed a desire to improve relations between the city and the district. Their efforts – which included an informal joint meeting of the Common Council and the School Board – came in response to Council members’ complaints that the only time they heard from the district was at budget time.
Council members have consistently expressed their frustration over the request for more money in a district that spends about $23,000 per student, when the city has no say over how that money is spent.
The city gives the schools $70.3 million a year. That’s about half of the city’s overall budget – but a small percentage of the district’s budget.
Last year, the city’s contributions to the schools accounted for 8 percent of the district’s budget, according to information provided by the Conference of Big Five School Districts.
In Syracuse and Rochester, each city’s contribution accounted for about 16 percent of its district’s budget. In Yonkers, the city’s contribution represented 42 percent of the school budget.