Barrett: Dems Discuss Restricting Bloomberg's School Control

Assembly Democrats discussed mayoral school control for about four and a half hours yesterday, and virtually none of the dozens of members who spoke during the closed party conference supported continuing Bloomberg's control of city schools in its present form.

Speaker Shelly Silver and Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, chair of the Education Committee, outlined a loose, unwritten plan for extending the 2002 law that gave Bloomberg control. While many of the details of the plan were vaguely described, sources said it called for major changes in the contracting process, including a possible provision restricting the hundreds of no-bid contracts recently audited by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. Members discussed the possibility that the largely powerless board created under the initial law -- the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) -- would have to vote on all no-bid awards at a public hearing with full disclosure of the rationale for awarding the contract without bidding.

The Silver/Nolan proposal also sought ways to apply procurement practices that apply to every other mayoral agency to the Department of Education; there's a loophole in the 2002 law that DOE has exploited to create their own unique and sometimes opaque contracting process. Silver would require, for example, that all DOE contracts be registered with the city comptroller. Though DOE claims it voluntarily registers contracts, a recent study by three Columbia Graduate School of Journalism students found that only 17 of 42 no-bid contracts awarded in 2006 were registered with the comptroller.

While the Silver package continued to give the mayor a majority of the appointees on PEP, the proposal, as well as the consensus views of 30 or so members who spoke, was that the panel's powers should be significantly strengthened, affecting contracting and school closings and other issues. Several assembly members urged that the panel be appointed for a specific term, which would avoid a repetition of the controversial dismissal by Bloomberg of two of his appointees shortly before a 2004 vote on new student promotion policies.

"This is what mayoral control is all about," Bloomberg said at the time. "They are my representatives and they are going to vote for things that I believe in." Randi Weingarten, the head of the teachers union, likened the sudden dismissals to a "Watergate Saturday night massacre," and urged changes in the state law then. Fernando Ferrer, the Democratic candidate against Bloomberg the next year, appeared at a panel meeting to protest the firings, which involved two Latino appointees who refused to support a plan to hold back children who didn't pass performance tests.

It's unclear where Silver is leaning on the question of terms for the panel, or just how extensively he favors increasing its powers, but that was, according to sources familiar with the conference discussion, the focus of most of the members. Senate Democrats are also reportedly intrigued by terms for panel members.

When Bloomberg removed the two members in 2004, however, he replaced them with two of his own employees -- one the head of the Housing Authority and the other an attorney for the Health & Hospitals Corporation. If the purpose of granting panel members terms is to enhance their independence and nothing is done to restrict the mayor's power to appoint his own employees, it's unlikely to achieve the goal.

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