Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes heard a familiar refrain regarding her mayoral intervention bill while visiting her home district last week.
The Buffalo lawmaker was showered with a chorus of doubts about whether handing the reins to the school district to her political ally Mayor Byron Brown would be the cure for Buffalo Public Schools’ many ills during a question-and-answer session after a public meeting on the East Side.
The meeting at the Delevan Grider Center was originally scheduled as a discussion of the state budget and money earmarked for the district.
But 35 district parents, teachers, and other community members were anxious to hear about the mayoral control bill, just introduced that day.
Carolette Meadows, a parent, wondered why it was so important to Peoples-Stokes to get the bill through this session, particularly considering that the district is awaiting the results of a report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, headed by the well-respected education scholar Gary Orfield, as part of an agreement with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
“I’m wondering why the push for the mayor to take control is now coming on the heels of an OCR decision that’s going to be coming in in August,” Meadows said. “It behooves us to just wait for the OCR decision and then react to whatever comes in there.”
Eve Shippens, a teacher the Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, praised Peoples-Stokes for her attention to school issues, but asked whether mayoral intervention was the best way to address those problems, citing the situation in Newark, New Jersey, where the tensions between parents, teachers, and the state-appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, are running so high that thousands of high school students walked out of the schools in protest last week.
“In Newark, where there is an appointed superintendent, there has been a lot of conflict with the community and with the students themselves about not having a voice,” Shippens, who is also a parent, said.
But Peoples-Stokes, who is also finding support among her fellow lawmakers hard to come by, stood fast . She said there has been enough hand-wringing about the next step to address the issue and that it is time to try something drastic to give the children of Buffalo a better chance at a quality education.
“It’s always discussed,” Peoples-Stokes said. “There’s always community conversation about the Buffalo School District, but it’s always about what they’re doing wrong.”
No topic has been more widely examined in the public realm over the last five or six years, she added.
“I don’t think we need to have any more discussion on the Buffalo School District,” Peoples-Stokes said. “I think we need to have some discussion on what the solution is, and I personally think the solution is mayoral intervention.”
Peoples-Stokes’s bill, introduced last Thursday, about two weeks after she first began to publicly push the idea of mayoral control, would give the mayor the ability to appoint a superintendent and all nine school board members, removing the current, publicly elected board.
The bill would require the legislature to reauthorize the mayoral control in two years, allowing lawmakers to review progress and decide whether to continue down that path, and stipulates that the superintendent offer quarterly reports to the legislature, the governor’s office and the board of education.
Peoples-Stokes argues that placing Brown at the helm—the mayor has remained publicly uncommitted, but City Hall sources say he wants the bill to pass—will bring accountability and stability to a district plagued by a board fraught with tension and a revolving door of superintendents.
“I don’t want to blame it on teachers, I don’t want to blame it on parents, I don’t want to blame it on the children,” Peoples-Stokes said near the end of the two-hour meeting, during which tensions sometimes ran high. “I just want the problem solved and I think this is a start to getting some solution to it.”
Lawmakers from the Western New York delegation have remained lukewarm to cold on the idea. Senate Republicans Mike Ranzenhofer and Patrick Gallivan—members of the majority in their chamber—have both said they are open to the idea, but Ranzenhofer, in particular, is not confident that a proper public outreach campaign can be accomplished in the final few weeks of the session.
Even members of her own party and in her own chamber have expressed doubts about the bill getting in under the wire.
Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, a fellow Democrat whose district covers a significant portion of the city, has concerns similar to those of Ranzenhofer.
“I think there needs to be some kind of process with the public where the public can come in and comment,” Kearns said last week.
In addition, the Buffalo Teachers Federation and several members of the school board have come out publicly against the idea.
Board of Education member Carl Paladino has said he will bring a lawsuit against the state if he and the other elected members of the board are removed under the legislation.
Even with so much uncertainty and opposition circling the bill, there is still a chance that it could become law this year. Peoples-Stokes only needs to convince the famed three men in a room. Governor Andrew Cuomo has her back on the matter, and Peoples-Stokes aims to meet with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan this week, she said.
If she is able to get all three on board, the legislation—or some altered version of the submitted bill—could become part of the “Big Ugly,” the massive omnibus bill that often comes at the end of the session, full of unrelated legislation all bundled together in one unruly package.
Peoples-Stokes said she plans to stay focused on getting her bill through because the people of her district need quality education in order to gain access to decent jobs.
“I can’t keep failing these children,” Peoples-Stokes said. “I just can’t let keep happening what’s happening right now.”
Justin Sondel is the Western New York reporter for City and State, with which The Public shares content.