Learning Curveball
by Ed Griffin-Nolan - Wednesday, October 30th, 2013
Miner may take a page from Bloomberg’s book if she gets her wish to control city schools

Welcome to the second Stephanie Miner mayoral administration. Unless you see Kevin Bott or Ian Hunter suddenly surging to victory, Miner’s second and (presumably) final term begins now.

I say presumably because Mayor Miner has shown a certain admiration for New York City’s retiring Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ran for his second and last term four years before running for his third and last term. Unless some better offer beckons, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that our mayor might try to persuade the Common Council to amend the city charter to end term limits.

After all, the popular but felonious Lee Alexander, whose crimes inspired the term limits that constrain Miner, had his heyday before most current voters were born. Regardless of whether Miner tries to extend her reign, she gave some hints during this anemic campaign that she would like to expand the power of her office for as long as she holds it.

Since there wasn’t much of a debate in the general campaign, you may not have noticed that Mayor Miner declared herself in favor of mayoral control of the schools. Only during the primary campaign was the issue raised. In response to a question Aug. 29 at the end of her primary debate with Pat Hogan and Alfonso Davis, Mayor Miner told WCNY’s Susan Arbetter, The Post Standard’s Marie Morelli plus the small television and radio audience paying attention that she would be in favor of mayoral control of the Syracuse city schools. No one had a chance to follow up with her.

In 2009, during the transition and early in her first year in office, Miner was quoted as saying she was interested in exploring the option of mayoral control. This summer marked the first time she has flat out asked that the keys be turned over to her. And if she succeeds, this year’s board of education voting might turn out to be just a formality.

It would take an act of the New York State Legislature and approval from the governor to make the mayor’s wish come true. If she decides to go for it, she would find some allies in high places. Cuomo’s lieutenant, Robert Duffy, often talked of taking over the Rochester city schools when he was the Flower City’s mayor. He didn’t have time to make it happen before Cuomo tapped him to run for state office in 2010. The federal secretary of education, Arne Duncan, is an eager proponent of letting the mayors run the schools.

Not long after President Barack Obama put him in charge of the Department of Education, Duncan spoke to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and begged them to invite him to their hometowns to help them make the case for may oral control. Reformers like Duncan, who came to Syracuse with Obama in August, argue that placing all the power in city hall makes for greater accountability.

The most serious debates we have heard this fall have been among the candidates for school board. But while they have discussed what they would do with the schools, a powerful mayor is saying essentially that she’d like to do away with the board.

Mayoral control of the schools is yet another way in which Mayor Miner likes to emulate the policies of Bloomberg. Bloomberg didn’t eliminate the New York City Board of Education; he just got Albany to allow him to pack it with his supporters. Miner might do the same.

After 10 years, critics argue that Bloomberg’s early gains in student performance have not held up, and his regime has produced a culture of teaching to the test. Supporters claim that he has cut costs and streamlined the process of eliminating sub-standard teachers. The experiment might be coming to an end; Albany has to renew the mayor’s mandate in 2015, and already there are rumblings of discontent.

Of course, the argument for centralized control was easier to make in New York City, where 32 community school boards coexisted with the central board of education to serve more than a million students. That unwieldy arrangement has no parallel in our district, in which one seven-member board oversees a district with about 19,000 students.

The theory is that if the mayor controls the school board and selects the superintendent, she can’t really blame the school board or the super if the schools are not performing as promised.

She’ll just have to blame the Common Council, or the state.

Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. You can reach him at edgriffin@twcny.rr.com.