It was one of the fiercest political debates Rochester has had in recent years. In 2009, the city was embroiled in a divisive wrangle over whether to dissolve the Rochester Board of Education and hand governance of city schools over to then mayor Bob Duffy. The issue sparked protests outside City Hall, led to a nasty scene at a school board meeting that pitted Duffy against some board members, and splintered the local Democratic Party into camps.
Now it’s Buffalo’s turn.
The Queen City has been in an uproar over whether Buffalo’s schools should be run by Mayor Byron Brown. Leading the charge for mayoral control is Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes. And she’s been supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has strongly advocated for mayoral control for Upstate cities, including Rochester.
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren has not asked for mayoral control or said that she wants it, even though Peoples-Stokes and local Assembly member David Gantt have on multiple occasions introduced mayoral-control legislation that would include Rochester.
For better or for worse, it’s almost impossible to separate education from politics. And the politics of education in Buffalo have grown rougher as the struggles of some of that city's schools worsened.
Former schools Superintendent Pamela Brown resigned last year, reportedly under pressure from the business community. And plans for Johns Hopkins University to take over two of the city’s lowest-performing schools were abandoned. The Buffalo school board, mired by infighting, has taken much of the heat for the district’s problems.
From most reports, it doesn’t sound like Peoples-Stokes’ legislation to turn the schools over to Brown will pass. But with Albany involved, who knows? Cuomo seems intent on getting something in return for the Buffalo billion.
But the ever demure and soft-spoken Carl Paladino, whose political presence certainly exceeds his position on the Buffalo school board, blames the city’s liberal elites and some board members for much of the district’s problems. He says that voters elected a new, more aggressive majority on the school board, who should be given their chance to make needed changes.
“In the past they gave us three incompetent carpetbaggers as superintendents who came with no institutional knowledge and talked big but didn’t have the ability or gut to stand up to those parasites who breed off of the power and money of the BPS (Buffalo public school system),” Paladino wrote in Artvoice.
And he didn’t hesitate to take aim at Peoples-Stokes, either, accusing her of cronyism and of wanting mayoral control for job-placement purposes.
Paladino calls the push for mayoral control in Buffalo an act of desperation, and in some ways he may be right. The job of improving student performance and closing the achievement gap in cities across the country has proven to be as challenging as any health, environmental, or social issue the country has faced in generations. And mayoral control seems attractive when other avenues have repeatedly failed.
Advocates of mayoral control point to a 2013 report by the Center for American Progress
, which gives mayoral control high marks. The report was authored by a longtime promoter of mayoral control, Brown University professor Kenneth Wong. The report makes the case that mayoral control has worked in New York City, the country’s largest school district, as well as other cities including Chicago.
But mayoral control hasn’t been the fix in plenty of other cases. And it doesn’t by itself raise student achievement. What it does, however, is consolidate power and authority, something its many supporters say is hugely important.
For many progressives though, eliminating an elected school board remains a bitter pill. They say that its disingenuous to teach about the democratic process and practice something else.