ALBANY – Democrats cobbled together enough votes Tuesday to re-elect three members of the state Board of Regents, a task made politically simpler when a fourth member seeking another 5-year term dropped out of the running just hours before the vote.
In what many lawmakers called a referendum on the Regents’ handling of the rollout of the controversial Common Core program, the final vote ended up largely preserving the status quo for the 17-member Regents board that sets rules and education policies for the state’s 700 public school districts.
Despite the intrigue over the preceding 24 hours, the only change was the confirmation of a lower Hudson Valley lawyer to a seat that had been held by an Albany-area Regent who announced Monday night that he was no longer seeking reappointment.
The election of the Regents does not directly have an impact on the Common Core program.
The Regents last month said they would be going ahead with 19 changes to the program, and Monday night a state commission made a series of recommendations to do everything from blocking certain testing for students in prekindergarten through second grade to ensuring that Common Core test results in English and math for students in grades 3 through 8 do not appear on their permanent record.
Those, as well as other possible changes, including additional money for teacher training, could be contained in the upcoming state budget due to be adopted before April 1. Unresolved is whether to delay the use of Common Core test results in evaluating teacher performance.
In a rare joint session of the State Legislature, Senate Republicans announced they were not voting for any incumbents as a signal that they were listening to their constituents about how the Regents implemented Common Core. They further said they would not vote for any alternative candidates because of what they said is a flawed process in which Democrats control appointments to the Board of Regents.
Membership on the panel is based on the total number of legislators in both houses, and Democrats overwhelmingly hold that power.
The Assembly Democrats, who usually dominate the process, have only 99 members seated because of a number of vacancies, and it takes 107 votes for a Regent to be elected.
That meant the Assembly Democrats needed Senate Democrats to help them get their nominees back on the Regents.
Rank-and-file lawmakers had grilled incumbents over Common Core, and the matter was the subject of long, closed-door discussions by Assembly Democrats over how to keep the incumbent Regents in office while sending the full board a message that it had failed in the implementing of Common Core.
Senate Democrats were in the unusual position of being needed by the Assembly Democrats, and Tuesday’s vote came as the Assembly, the Senate and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are negotiating a 2014 budget plan – in which the Senate Democrats have no direct role.
Asked before the vote how the Assembly Democrats managed to persuade some Senate Democrats to go along with them, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said: “They recognize quality candidates.”
Asked if any deals had been made with Senate Democrats, Silver said, “No, no cajoling.”
Sen. Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican who is a co-leader of the Senate, said during the joint session that the vast majority of school districts say they were unprepared to carry out the Regents’ Common Core program. He said lawmakers need to represent their constituents.
“That’s why I will vote no,” Skelos said of the four Regents votes Tuesday.
Democrats have controlled the appointment of Regents since 1974; Skelos said Tuesday’s vote “highlights the flawed process for the way we choose Regents.”
The pregame drama ended with the first vote: whether to re-elect James E. Cottrell, of Brooklyn, to another term on the Regents.
Assemblyman Andrew P. Raia, a Suffolk County Republican, said the system for electing Regents, dating from the 1700s, should be amended so that residents, not lawmakers, choose the members of the panel. He said he would not vote for any of the candidates until a “truly democratic process” is put in place for Regents elections.
The Regents dictate education policy for all public school districts. They play a role in the operations of universities, libraries and adult education programs, and are the licensing agency for dozens of professions, including dentists, psychologists, pharmacists and architects.
Precise individual voting by lawmakers was not immediately available, but Senate Republicans from Western New York voted “no” or “no vote,” while Assembly Democrats generally voted for the candidates. A bloc of Assembly Republicans voted for alternative candidates they nominated.
Also re-elected was Wade S. Norwood, of Rochester, who has served as an at-large member.
Democrats rejected candidates offered by Assembly Republicans. Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, offered up the nomination of Walter S. Polka against Norwood for the at-large seat. Polka was a superintendent of the Lewiston-Porter Central School District and is now a professor at Niagara University.
Norwood defeated Polka by a vote of 118 to 43.
That lawmakers would have the opportunity for a choice – no matter how little chance challengers had – is unusual by state legislative standards. Typically over the years, lawmakers are given the choice between voting for someone backed by the Assembly Democratic leadership or no one.
The other incumbent Regent getting re-elected was Christine D. Cea, who represents Staten Island.
Monday night, James O. Jackson, who represents the Albany area, dropped out of the running. Lawmakers on Tuesday approved Josephine Victoria Finn for his post. Finn, a Buffalo law school graduate who lives in the lower Hudson Valley, was not interviewed for the first time by lawmakers until suddenly Monday, weeks after the other 20 or so candidates went through the process.
Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, raised questions about Finn’s name suddenly getting into the mix. She told colleagues that the Assembly rules called for candidates for the Regents to submit their résumés by Jan. 31 and to be interviewed in February.
“I am concerned about the process here,” Corwin said.
The Board of Regents includes of four at-large members, with the other 13 representing areas determined according to the state’s judicial districts.
Republicans said they saw no reason to return incumbent Regents after the way the Common Core was implemented. “We saw three incumbents re-elected. That’s a sad commentary,” said Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma, who voted against all the Regents. “My decision to vote no was to send a message that we can’t be re-electing the same people to do the same thing.”’