Thursday, January 29, 2009

Backers of Mayoral School Control Face Resistance By Jennifer Medina -

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When close allies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg banded together last summer to create a political organization to push for the renewal of a 2002 state law that gave New York City’s mayor control over its public schools, the initial buzz was that it would become a powerhouse lobbying group, raising as much as $20 million and helping shape the debate over the year.

Instead the group, called Learn NY, has raised less than $3 million from several foundations. Rather than producing flashy television spots, it has placed simple ads on Web sites of news organizations and, and tried to spread its positions by posting on education and community listservs and blogs.

At times, such efforts have backfired, with parents calling the posters puppets of the mayor and suggesting that they take their suggestions elsewhere.

With the first of five public hearings on mayoral control by the Assembly’s Education Committee scheduled for Thursday in Queens, the group has lined up supporters to testify about what they see as Mr. Bloomberg’s successes and how the school system is better off now than when the initial legislation took effect.

“This isn’t an issue that people have a lot of knowledge on, but there certainly is a positive general feeling that the schools have gotten better, not that they are perfect,” said Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for the group and paid consultant with Global Strategy Group, which has ties to Gov. David A. Paterson and several other top Democrats. “We want to draw on that.”

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday showed that 47 percent of New Yorkers think the mayor’s takeover has been successful; 31 percent disagreed. Also on Wednesday, Learn NY announced partnerships with the Hispanic Federation, Black Equity Alliance and Asian-American Federation of New York and said it would sponsor forums on the topic with those nonprofit groups.

But in its early, largely low-key campaign, the leaders of Learn NY have drawn the ire of some of the most active and vocal parent-advocates in the city. When David M. Quintana, a Queens father whose blog features a clock counting down to the end of the mayor’s term, received an e-mail message this week asking him to post a letter introducing Learn NY to his readers, he instead sent it to a listserv that is often critical of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.

“I just suspected that they were sort of a Gal Friday for the mayor,” Mr. Quintana said in an interview. “They tried to recruit parents and they just picked the wrong parents to recruit.”

The group has faced intense skepticism from those who believe that the billionaire mayor, who has lavished handsome sums on many nonprofit groups and spent millions of dollars on his own campaigns, would quietly finance the effort.

While organizers of Learn NY declined to name their donors, they did say that Mr. Bloomberg had not given a dime. They said they were concerned that his doing so could undermine the effort.

But the group’s message to lawmakers and community groups thus far largely echoes the message coming out of City Hall: that it is open to the creation of an outside group to monitor student and budget data, but it bristles at any kind of independent governance board that would have to approve changes in policy.

Dennis M. Walcott, the deputy mayor who oversees education, said the administration opposed any change in the Panel for Education Policy, which is appointed by the mayor and largely serves as a rubber stamp, in part because it believes most of the mayor’s controversial initiatives would never have passed had he not had full control over the schools.

“You have to remember the history of what it was like before — people were appointed to fixed terms, and then took on their own life, and the people who appointed them complained that they were bowing to other groups,” Mr. Walcott said. “I think the other suggestions that are out there about changing the makeup of the panel would really cut into our reforms.”

Mr. Walcott is among those scheduled to testify at Thursday’s hearing, at Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, the first of five weekly sessions, one in each borough. Legislators are not expected to begin debating the law in earnest until the budget is passed.

In many ways, the mayor’s bid for a third term could hurt his efforts to keep control. Many legislators complain about Mr. Klein, who they say has not responded adequately to parent complaints.

“No one wants to go back to the old system of finger pointing and no one being in charge and there’s an appreciation of the line of authority,” said Michael N. Gianaris, a Queens assemblyman. “That being said, there’s a wide belief that parents are real stakeholders, and that has not been appreciated as much as it should be, and too often parents are shut out of the process.”

Learn NY organizers said they hope lawmakers and the public could separate their views on Chancellor Klein from the concept of mayoral control, but such a distinction can be difficult to make in the political world.

“If the mayor was not running for re-election, one could be more objective about it, but I think people see that the chancellor hasn’t made a lot of friends in the last several years and that’s part of what happens when you have one person having this level of authority,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers’ union, who has sparred with Mr. Klein repeatedly in recent years and is influential in Albany.

“So in the same way that the mayor would say, ‘Look at the last seven years, and hold me responsible,’ in this iteration of control, you can’t separate out the people from the institution.”