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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Senate Deadlock Hits New York Schools

Wall Street Journal Online
July 2, 2009

New York City officials scrambled Wednesday to re-create a system of school governance that hasn't existed in seven years after a deadlocked state Senate failed to renew the mayor's control over public schools before a Tuesday deadline.

For three weeks the state Senate has declined to tackle controversial bills, including one that would have renewed Mayor Michael Bloomberg's control over New York City schools. Without that approval, the city was forced to revert to its 2002 system, hastily choosing a city school board. But there are no provisions in place to establish such entities as local school districts, creating a situation, the mayor said, in which the city could be accused of running the schools illegally.

The state senators -- locked in a 31-31 tie after two Democrats defected and then one returned -- have repeatedly met in their respective party conferences only and then adjourned, since neither party has enough votes to make law. For a while the crisis seemed to have minimal impact beyond exasperating government officials and amusing political pundits. But now the Senate's refusal to agree on its leadership is starting to hit cities.

In addition to the school-control legislation, the Senate didn't vote on Mr. Bloomberg's request to increase the city's sales tax, depriving the city this month of $60 million -- roughly the amount the city spends to employ 600 police officers, the mayor said. The gridlock also is threatening billions of dollars in federal grants, state aid to municipalities and tax increases that would have balanced local budgets.

Gov. David Paterson has obtained court orders compelling the Senate to meet, but most days it has been unable to get a quorum of 32 senators in the room at the same time to vote. Wednesday, as he has every day for nearly a week, the governor ordered the senators into a so-called extraordinary session, asking them to consider, among other bills, the New York City schools issue. The senators have rebuffed his pleas.

Gov. Paterson said Wednesday afternoon that he would keep the special session going through Monday, compelling the senators to spend the holiday weekend in Albany.

Early Wednesday, the mayor and the city's five borough presidents appointed a seven-member schools board, made up mostly of allies or employees of the mayor -- and thus likely to vote to disband itself should the Senate eventually affirm his control.

Some who oppose Mr. Bloomberg's control are scrutinizing the newly created board, questioning its resolution Wednesday to allow Chancellor Joel Klein to approve all contracts on its behalf.

"I don't know if they have the right to sign away...their fiduciary duties," said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group that is critical of mayoral control.

The state Legislature allowed Mr. Bloomberg to take control over the city's schools in 2002, after city officials argued that the politically divided board of education had failed to improve school quality. The mayor has argued that schools have improved, with better standardized-test scores and graduation rates.

But Mr. Bloomberg's control has drawn the criticism of some parents and many teachers, who say the system leaves no room for the views of community members.

The state Senate is considering a bill to create a school board that, supporters say, would make teachers and parents partners with the mayor. A key Democratic Senate leader favors that setup.

Senate Republicans said they support renewal of mayoral control "and are prepared to pass it as soon as possible," said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Sen. Dean Skelos.

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