Smith’s Nuclear Option on Mayoral Control: Skirting the Gang by Joining With Republicans

ALBANY—Even though David Paterson and legislative leaders agree with the central tenet of mayoral control of schools, it looks like holdouts in the State Senate will once again try to bring the wheels of government to a standstill, and may very well succeed in doing so.

It's the M.T.A. bailout all over again, with one key difference: Republicans in the chamber are on the record agreeing with Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. Which means that if he's inclined to do so, Smith has the ability to side with them over the holdouts. Or, alternately, he could use the Republicans as leverage.

Smith is supportive of Bloomberg on the question of whether to keep the majority of appointments to the Panel for Educational Policy at the mayor's discretion. On Monday, Smith presented a "draft proposal outlining the framework for mayoral control legislation" to members, and after meeting behind closed doors for several hours with members, emerged to say this:

"We actually have sort of a split," on the issue of majority appointment. "Some members feel that way, as I feel, that the mayor should retain control of that board. There are other members that feel differently. And at the end of the day, we will have a piece of legislation that will reflect the body's agreement."

"This is our first day that we've discussed school governance. So, this wasn't a day to tell people, here's where you have to be. This was a day to say, what are the concerns that we have?" Smith said, when asked about the framework.

Those who have "split" against him include the usual opponents—State Senators Carl Kruger, Ruben Diaz Sr. and Hiram Monserrate—as well as State Senator Bill Perkins, who has called mayoral control a "disaster" and walked out of the room about an hour earlier.

"I would say we're really at the preliminary stage," Perkins said. He insisted the discussion was "claritative," not argumentative, and added that "there will be, I'm sure, vigorous discussion as we go along."

But beyond vigorous discussion, there isn't much the holdouts can technically do. Kruger is the chairman of the Finance Committee, and under a new rules structure he would have the power to stall any bill he didn't like there (he promised me he would do so). But if Smith wanted to outmaneuver him, he could see to it the bill moved directly to the floor, where it would presumably pass with the support of most of the Democrats and most or all of the Republicans.

And that would take care of the battle, but not the war: someone managing a majority as tenuous and undisciplined as Smith's can ill afford a cogent group of enemies with a statutorily powerful, and angry, leader.

Before Smith's announcement, Kruger told me about his own plan for schools that largely guts the mayor's influence, and said, "I feel as strongly on this as I did on the tolls."

Kruger's plan would vastly dilute the Mayor's influence on the P.E.P., where he currently appoints the majority of members and they serve "at will." Kruger's proposal, which is before the legislative bill drafting commission, would give the mayor five appointees, allow one appointee per borough president and one each for the public advocate, comptroller and City Council speaker.

He would also allow more control on the borough level and require the Department of Education to submit to more rigorous oversight. I asked Kruger if this fight was going to be like the M.T.A. routine.

"We have a conference, and you need 32 votes to pass it, and something's—I don't have pride of authorship. This is my proposal. If anyone's proposal comes close to my proposal and we're able to get consensus, that's what a democratic process is all about," he said. "At the end of the day, if it doesn't include the indicia of what I'm proposing, then I will not support it."

State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. was similarly obstinate: "The amigos: no mayoral control. They're going to have to work with the Republican side to do it."

The opportunity to do that is seemingly there. Minority Leader Dean Skelos put out a statement after positive exam scores were released, saying "mayoral control has clearly put New York City's schools on the right track, and the renewal of this important legislation before it expires in June must be a priority."

But will Smith bite? He was asked by reporters of the possibility, and indicated that he would prefer to build consensus within his own conference. He said the final bill would have "32 senators" vote for it. At least.

Earlier, Kruger almost dared Smith to cross the aisle. He called the Republicans "irrelevant," noted that "the movement of bills in this house is determined by the majority, not by the Republican conference. They can back whatever they want, they can't get a bill on the floor. It would be a retooling of the way we do business if we put a bill out on the floor that did not have 32 Democratic votes."

"Until we…the reason why this sunsets is because…I voted against it when this was originally proposed. They've had more than enough opportunity to have it function," he also said. "I've sued against it, and I won in court over the superintendents, and I'm prepared now to go to the next level and deal with it legislatively.

 "As a conference, I think it would be a sorry day if we were to put out a bill that we couldn't pass as a conference and we needed Republican votes to do it. It would send out a very chilling message."

(A semi-related final thought: consider the above as it relates to Kruger's conspicuous non-position on same-sex marriage.)

Smith’s Nuclear Option on Mayoral Control: Skirting the Gang by Joining With Republicans