De Blasio, aided by Cuomo, extends controls of schools

Resolution comes at end of special session
Carl Heastie (center) the New York State Assembly speaker, in Albany on June 28, 2017.
Carl Heastie (center) the New York State Assembly speaker, in Albany on June 28, 2017.

ALBANY — The state Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday granted a two-year extension of mayoral control over New York City’s schools, ending months of uncertainty over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership of the nation’s largest school system and its 1.1 million students a day before the policy was to expire.

The renewal came at the end of a special two-day legislative session, with the Assembly giving its approval early in the day and the Senate following suit later. Shortly after the Senate vote, Cuomo signed a ceremonial bill extending de Blasio’s control of the schools as two of the mayor’s top aides looked on, a striking, if brief, show of bonhomie between two Democrats who have often been in open conflict.

“This has been a contentious item, to use the word loosely, in the past,” Cuomo said of mayoral-control issue, before noting, “But at the end of the day this is the best way to provide education to our children in New York City.”

In an aside, he added, “We will not have to go through this exercise next year, as pleasant as it was.”

The governor was being sarcastic, and the squabble over mayoral control had indeed cast a pall over the end of the regularly scheduled legislative session, which ended last week. At the time, Republican and Democratic lawmakers were deadlocked over whether de Blasio’s control should be linked to an increase in the number of charter schools. Republicans in the Senate wanted more of them; Democrats in the Assembly did not.

The dispute had imperiled the mayoral-control policy, which dates to 2002 and the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who hailed it as a profound improvement over the old system, under which a Board of Education was the ultimate authority.

But mayoral control has not been without political controversy, particularly during de Blasio’s time in office; in each of the past two years, the mayor had to accept one-year extensions, as Senate Republicans were stingy with a man who many in their party hold in disdain, particularly after his unsuccessful effort to help deliver control of the Senate to Democrats in 2014.

This year, Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, had staked considerable political clout on breaking the one-year cycle, tactically linking the extension of mayoral control of the schools to the renewal of various local taxes that raise much-needed revenue, including in upstate areas where Republicans draw much of their political power.

In the end, Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, prevailed, securing the two-year extension without approving additional charter schools and earning praise from de Blasio, who gave the Legislature and governor “great credit for protecting the dramatic progress” in the city’s schools. But charter school advocates, who are ample financial backers of Cuomo and Senate Republicans, may not have been totally shut out.

At a news conference, de Blasio acknowledged that the negotiations had produced some side deals that were not included in the special-session omnibus bill but would be announced soon. Two people with knowledge of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details had not been finalized said the agreements dealt with rules for charter schoolteachers and zombie charter schools (no longer in operation, but still counted against numerical limits). Both issues had been the subject of negotiations in recent weeks.

Assembly Democrats had also agreed to a variety of upstate considerations as part of the two-year extension, including additional money for flood victims on Lake Ontario; access to more money for road and well construction in the Adirondack region; and a relief package for Vernon Downs, a racetrack and racino near Utica.

All of which, Cuomo said, amounted to a success.

“It was a lot of good work done in a very short period of time,” he said at a news conference in the Capitol’s ceremonial Red Room on Thursday, calling the special-session package “a beautiful capstone” to the Legislature’s work for the year.

That said, it was also the second blown deadline of the year for Cuomo and the Legislature. In April, tortured negotiations over a $153 billion state budget ended more than a week late, the worst performance of the governor’s two terms.

Cuomo said the delayed budget had been worth it, with bills raising the age of criminal responsibility, making public college tuition free for the middle-class families, reforming the state workers’ compensation system and expanding ride-hailing services to upstate New York. Indeed, so much was accomplished during the budget season that many had suggested the end of the legislative session would be robbed of drama.

But then the negotiations over mayoral control stalled, forcing Cuomo to use his constitutional power to order lawmakers back to the Capitol on Wednesday. He insisted that with a deadline looming, the extraordinary session would be solely focused on the mayoral-control issue. It soon became apparent that lawmakers would raise a multitude of outstanding matters.

Still, not everyone was pleased with the extra time in Albany, particularly mainstream Democrats in the Senate, who have been shunted into a minority role by a group of nine breakaway Democrats who collaborate with the ruling Republicans. On Thursday, Michael Gianaris of Queens, the deputy leader of the Democratic minority, took to the Senate floor to deplore the lack of action on his proposal to tax the wealthy and hotels and motels to pay for improvements to the city’s troubled mass-transit system.

“You’re watching scenes unfold on television as if you’re watching a movie that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world,” Gianaris said, adding: “What have we done in the last two days about that? The answer is nothing.”

But Cuomo, who declared a state of emergency for the subway system Thursday, said that approving a new tax in a divided Legislature was unrealistic.

Extending taxes appeared to be less of a problem: A major part of the omnibus bill, known informally as a “big ugly” in Albany, was a three-year extension of the local taxes that had created a sticking point in last week’s talks.

Cuomo earned an agreement close to his own heart, the renaming of the Malcolm Wilson Tappan Zee Bridge in honor of his father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. Some have questioned the move, since it was the elder Cuomo who named the Tappan Zee for Gov. Malcolm Wilson, whose family has complained about the renaming.

For his part, Cuomo was noncommittal about the imagined reaction of his father, who died on New Year’s Day 2015, the day of his son’s second inaugural.

“If you asked him the question, he would say I don’t want a bridge named after me,” Cuomo said. He added: “However, he did have a deep respect for the institution of government and government service.”

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