Doubts Dog Peoples-Stokes' Push for Mayoral Control in Buffalo

Doubts Dog Peoples-Stokes' Push for Mayoral Control in Buffalo

Doubts Dog Peoples-Stokes' Push for Mayoral Control in Buffalo
May 27, 2015

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 as to whether handing over the reigns of the long-troubled school district to her political ally Mayor Byron Brown could be the cure for the city’s ailing public school system, during a question-and-answer session after a public meeting on the city’s East Side.

The meeting, held at the Delavan Grider Center, was originally scheduled as a discussion of the state budget and funding earmarked for the 141st District.

But the 35 parents, teachers and other community members in attendance were anxious to hear about Peoples-Stokes’ recently introduced bill and what it could mean for the district if it becomes law this session.

Carolette Meadows, a parent, wondered why it was so important to Peoples-Stokes to get the bill through this spring, when the district is still awaiting the results of a report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, headed by education scholar Gary Orfield, as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

“Is this a case of too much, too little, too late?” Meadows asked. “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.”

With the results of that report set to shape the direction of the district going forward, Meadows wondered if it isn’t too soon to be enacting such drastic changes.

“It behooves us to just wait for the OCR decision and then react to whatever comes in there,” Meadows said. 

Eve Shippens, a teacher at the Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, praised Peoples-Stokes for her attention to school issues, but asked if mayoral intervention was the best way to address the 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 around a thousand 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,” said Shippens, who is also a district parent.

But Peoples-Stokes, who is also finding support hard to come by with her fellow lawmakers, stood by her assertion that there has been enough hand-wringing about the issue and that it is time to try something new.

“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 public 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.” 

Introduced last Thursday—about two weeks after Peoples-Stokes first began to publicly push the idea of mayoral control—the measure would give Buffalo’s mayor the ability to appoint a superintendent and all nine school board members, removing the current, publicly elected board.

The bill would require the state Legislature to review mayoral control in two years, after which lawmakers would decide whether to reauthorize it or not. The superintendent of schools could also be required to file quarterly reports to the Legislature, the governor’s office and the Buffalo Board of Education.

People-Stokes argues that by placing Brown at the helm, the Legislature will be able to bring accountability and stability to a district fraught with tension, disagreement and a revolving door of superintendents providing little continuity.

“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, where tensions sometimes ran high. “I just want the problem solved and I think this is a start to getting some solution to it.”

Mayor Brown has remained publicly uncommitted to Peoples-Stokes’ plan, but sources inside City Hall say he wants the bill to pass.

Still, lawmakers from the Western New York delegation have remained lukewarm-to-cold on the idea. Senate Republicans Mike Ranzenhofer and Patrick Gallivan have said they are open to the idea, but Ranzenhofer in particular doubts that a proper public outreach campaign can be accomplished in the final few weeks of session.

Even members of Peoples-Stokes’ own Democratic Party are skeptical about the bill getting in under the wire.

“I think there needs to be some kind of process with the public where the public can come in and comment,” said Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, a fellow Democrat from Buffalo.

In addition, the Buffalo Teachers Federation and several members of the school board have publicly come out against the idea. Buffalo Board of Education member Carl Paladino has said he will bring a lawsuit against the state if he and the other elected board members are removed under the legislation. 

Yet there is still a chance the bill could become law this year: Peoples-Stokes need only convince Albany’s famed three men in a room—the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader—that mayoral intervention should pass.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo ostensibly 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 Peoples-Stokes is able to get all three on board, the legislation—or some altered version of the bill—could become part of the so-called Big Ugly, the massive omnibus bill that often comes at the end of session, full of unrelated measures bundled together in one ungainly package.

Peoples-Stokes said she plans to stay focused on getting her bill through because the people of her highly impoverished 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 a freelance reporter in Buffalo.