In a city with one of the worst academic records in the state, there seems to be a running list of people – from the governor to the state education commissioner to school board candidates – weighing in on how to run the public school system.
The latest is Mayor Byron W. Brown, who last week said he is considering a takeover of the Buffalo schools.
While cautioning that he is exploring the option called mayoral control – not actively seeking it – Brown said now that the city is stable financially, he can turn his attention to other issues.
Few are more pressing than the Buffalo school district.
Mayoral control has taken on many forms in large and small cities across the country, with supporters saying the model removes some of the bureaucracy from decision making by centralizing power with a single person who can be held accountable for school finances and academic performance – not an elected school board.
Opponents, however, argue that consolidation of power in the mayor’s office cuts a key stakeholder out of the process: Voters. Additionally, it is difficult to say for sure whether the academic gains in some cities with mayoral control can exclusively be attributed to the model.
Brown said he would not actively pursue such a model without strong community support, and any move in that direction would require state legislation, something that has been a problem for other mayors in New York seeking greater control over their cities’ school systems.
A shift to mayoral control also could place a greater financial burden on taxpayers in the City of Buffalo, who would most likely have to start contributing a far greater share to the school district’s budget.
Still, some believe any option is worth exploring in a city where state data indicate fewer than half of high school students graduate in four years, and politics seem to mire any effort to help the schools.
If not mayoral control, some alternative to the current system may be necessary.
“In the case of Buffalo, at this point in time, it’s worth very serious consideration how decisions are made,” said Robert Bennett, chancellor emeritus for the state’s Board of Regents. “If that means mayoral control, so be it.”
History repeats itself
If Buffalo adopts a system that allows the mayor greater control over the school district, it would not be the first time.
Until the early 1970s, Buffalo’s mayor had the power to appoint School Board members, with Council approval.
Some, however, felt that system of mayoral appointments limited the diversity of who served on the board, with those selected often being “rich people, people who knew very little about education,” said George K. Arthur, who was Ellicott District Council member at the time.
The push for an elected School Board, or “community control,” occurred simultaneously with a debate about the desegregation of public schools and busing.
Supporters of an elected board included members of the black community and also white School Board members. Those proponents, including parents and members of racial minority groups, argued that a democratically elected board would give them a greater voice in the city’s public education system.
Voters in November 1973 decided that the Board of Education would be popularly elected, a measure that passed with 56 percent of the vote.
“It was considered a victory,” Arthur said. “At that time, it was the right thing to do. But you’ve got to realize that was 40 years ago. Things change.”
The board transformed from seven members appointed by the mayor and approved by the Council to nine members – one from each of six districts and three at-large members.
When the first School Board elections were held in May 1974, five women and four men were elected, including two members who served on the appointed board.
But even then, that diversity was achieved with input from a relative few voters. In that first contest for an elected School Board, just 11 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Turnout has not improved.
Low voter turnout has dogged school boards here and elsewhere for years, with participation in those races typically far lower than nearly all other measures that show up on the ballot.
One time a question about whether games of chance should be played in churches was up for a vote at the same time as the School Board candidates.
“The bingo question got significantly more votes than the School Board elections,” Arthur said.
A matter of politics
What happened in Buffalo underscores a key point in the debate about mayoral control: Who should get to select the person or persons ultimately responsible for the education system?
Supporters of mayoral control say entrusting the mayor with ultimate authority removes the bureaucracy and red tape that can bog down systems governed by school boards, where decisions about spending and policy must be approved by the majority of a group of people whose jobs depend on being re-elected.
They say a mayor, working in conjunction with a member of his cabinet and appointed advisory board, can more swiftly enact the often-controversial reforms needed to turn around struggling school systems. And they point to that low voter turnout as evidence that, even with an elected board, a relative few people decide who holds the power. More voters have their say in a typical mayoral race, they note.
Still, those opposed to mayoral control say the model detracts from the democratic process, robbing voters of their right to choose who makes school-related decisions for them.
“It’s a complete disaster,” said Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “In addition, as much as I respect this mayor, the question becomes, what about some other mayor? I’d rather leave it up to the public. The public should make the decisions.”
That issue was central to the debate in Rochester after Mayor Robert Duffy, who later became the state’s lieutenant governor, said he wanted control of that school district. His proposal touched off a year of contentious debate over who should be responsible for what is now the state’s worst-performing school system.
Duffy’s plan was to dissolve the city School Board and turn control of the district over to the mayor, who would appoint a superintendent as part of his cabinet. He said that all city operations – from public safety to economic development and education – would benefit from a consolidated government with shared resources, and projected his plan would save money.
Any potential savings, however, weren’t worth the cost of the Democratic process for many detractors, including Rumore’s counterpart Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, who is widely credited for using his clout and union connections to shut down Duffy’s effort.
Ultimately, the legislation needed to enact Duffy’s plan failed to gain enough support from lawmakers.
Although it exists in most of the state’s large urban areas, the system of elected school boards can often put mayors – and taxpayers – in a tough spot when it comes to finances.
While cities typically contribute to school budgets, they have no authority over how that money is spent, and that can lead to problems later, some mayors say.
That’s what is happening in Yonkers, where earlier this year, school officials revealed a $55 million deficit and looked to the city – which already funds 41 percent of the school system’s budget – for help.
A subsequent review in Yonkers revealed a pattern of misspending and poor budgeting that went on for decades, prompting Mayor Mike Spano to call for more authority over the district.
The Yonkers mayor already has the authority to appoint School Board members, but the board then operates independently of the city. And because of the term structure, incoming mayors are often forced to work with the board appointed by their predecessor.
“Due to the firewall that currently exists between the City of Yonkers and the Board of Education and the financial ramifications that it imposes, we are seeking school governance reform which will provide the City significant oversight over the BOE. We believe this will lead to greater transparency, accountability, and ultimately, a restructure between the City and BOE that our taxpayers can afford,” Spano wrote in a statement to The Buffalo News.
Facing their own $50 million budget deficit for the next school year, some Buffalo School Board members have suggested asking the city’s Common Council to bail them out. In Buffalo, city taxpayers provide just 8 percent of the school district budget.
Impact on academics
Ultimately, the impact of mayoral control must be measured in one place: the classroom.
And in New York State, the only place with a full mayoral control model is New York City.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the schools there in 2002, using his power to make sweeping changes in the nation’s largest school system. Those included some controversial reforms, including a heightened focus on standardized tests and increasing the number of charter schools, things that would likely have been difficult to implement in a system governed by an elected school board.
“Because he was such a strong mayor, he said, ‘This is the way I want it to be and this is the way it’s going to be,’ ” said Bennett, the Regent. “He didn’t have to go through any legislative body.”
Bloomberg used the standardized tests to grade schools and give bonuses to principals whose schools performed well. He created a leadership academy for principals, and focused on recruiting and cultivating quality leaders.
Bloomberg and his supporters have credited those reforms for an increase in test scores and graduation rates, as well as helping close the achievement gaps between races of students.
But others argue it’s nearly impossible to determine whether those gains were truly the result of mayoral control. Gains on the old state tests also were not reflected on the National Assessment of Education Progress, and have essentially been wiped out with New York’s new test that measures mastery of the Common Core standards.
“We do have stronger results academically, but it’s hard to make that link,” said Georgia Asciutto, executive director of the Conference of Big Five School Districts.
And, for all that power, it wasn’t a complete success.
“They did OK in some areas, but not all,” Bennett said, citing special education and career programs as areas Bloomberg fell short.
Any reforms will be driven by the agenda of who is leading the system, whether that’s the sitting mayor or the school board president.
In his eight years as Buffalo’s mayor, Brown has taken a largely hands-off approach to the schools, rarely weighing in on education issues much less articulating plans for turning around the struggling school system.
Some Buffalo School Board members, who would be out of a job if the city did go to mayoral control, said the mayor’s historically lacking involvement was concerning and questioned whether it was politics – not a desire to improve outcomes for students – driving Brown’s consideration.
“You can’t just suggest taking over the school system when you don’t tell us what your agenda is,” said board member Carl Paladino.