Overshadowed by the madhouse in the state senate, Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver demonstrated the flipside of the dysfunction that grips Albany last week: autocratic control.
Attracting unusual praise from Mike Bloomberg’s media allies, Silver rammed a bill to extend mayoral control of the schools through his party conference on Wednesday. For the first time since Silver forced a repeal of the commuter tax in 1999, which costs the city a half billion dollars in revenue today, he is championing legislation that exclusively affects the city despite strong opposition from as many as half of his 65 members from the city.
The custom in the assembly is that suburban and upstate assemblymembers defer to the city delegation on city legislation, but this time Silver is counting on his control of these outside-the-city members, and Bloomberg’s support in the puny Republican delegation in the assembly, to pass the extension. Though 30 to 35 city members spoke in conference deliberations a couple of weeks ago against elements of Silver’s initial extension proposal, the speaker came back last Wednesday with essentially the same proposal. Bloomberg immediately praised the Silver bill on his radio show, and it appears slated for a vote in the full assembly by Wednesday.
Taking a closer look, it’s no wonder that the mayor likes what Silver is up to…
The key change sought by assembly critics was fixed terms for the 13-member Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), which is the closest thing we have to the old, independent Board of Education. Silver’s bill, unsurprisingly, still gives the mayor majority control of the panel, empowering him to appoint eight members (the five borough presidents appoint the others). But the speaker brushed aside at least 20 members who argued in the conference that they wanted all PEP members to be appointed for multi-year terms, rather than to continue serving at the pleasure of the mayor. Only one member of the conference spoke in favor of the current appointment system, which permits removal at any time, according to sources present at the closed deliberations.
The assembly critics cited the Saturday night massacre in 2004, when Bloomberg suddenly removed two of his own PEP appointees who announced they would oppose his plan to hold back third graders who didn’t pass a test. Before the two could even cast their vote, Bloomberg replaced them with two city employees who owed their jobs to him and supported the new promotional policies. The Silver proposal appears to do nothing to restrain the mayor from naming his own employees to the panel either. The Times reported last week that no Bloomberg proposal has ever been rejected by PEP in its near six-year history.
There are certainly powerful arguments on both sides of the fixed term question. The Bloomberg administration got no less than Obama’s education secretary to write a letter last week opposing any attempt to give PEP members fixed terms, saying it would dilute mayoral control and reduce the chances of coherent policy change. The vocal support for terms within the city delegation would ordinarily result in a compromise — perhaps a split of the eight mayoral appointments between terms and no terms — but Silver, without explanation, has simply adopted the Bloomberg view.
The editorial boards at each city daily uniformly like the result — an extension of Bloomberg’s mixed, but largely positive, reign over the schools — so no one’s even questioning the process. The same editorial boards that routinely deride three-men-in-a-room Albany rule are ignoring Silver’s contemptuous disregard of his city members. Silver did toss the critics in his conference a few bones, but his “reforms” — giving PEP new powers over no-bid contracts and school closings — are meaningless if the mayor can stack the panel with his own employees, and remove them at will if they disagree with him on even a single item (as he did in 2004).
What’s most mysterious is Silver’s motive for such a roll-over after years of build-up that suggested the legislature would materially change how the schools have been run since the passage of the first mayoral control bill in 2002. Silver’s closest political ally, United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, wrote an op-ed piece for the Post abandoning a detailed proposal approved by the union’s delegate assembly, theoretically the authoritative body that sets UFT policy. Assembly members told the Voice that the UFT has utterly disappeared in Albany as a lobbying force on the control bill, taking no position on any of the critical issues.
Of course, the union and the Bloomberg administration will soon negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, with the current one expiring in October. Don’t be surprised if taxpayers pay the price in that new contract — in increased benefits without workrule changes — in return for no fixed terms in Silver’s bill.