Former Assembly education chair, Klein foe, charges chancellor with “freelancing”
Most people do not keep copies of the mayoral control law in their offices.
Steve Sanders does.
“I wrote the law, so I know what’s in the law,” said Sanders, who chaired the Assembly Education Committee from 1995 to 2005, jabbing a finger at the leather-bound book containing the text.
Keeping a copy nearby is handy as Sanders levels his criticisms at how Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has been interpreting the law.
“There are a number of things he is doing, in my opinion as the author of the law, that are not authorized,” he said. “He was freelancing, he was doing things beyond the scope that exceeded the authority we gave him.”
Now an Albany-based lobbyist, Sanders finds himself back in the middle of the highly charged debate around renewing the law he helped shepherd through, which is set to expire June 30.
Sitting in his office at Crane, Vacco & Sanders, LLC, Sanders said he could have stayed on the sidelines and watched as his successor, Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan (D-Queens), did her best to manage all the competing interests involved. But instead, Sanders became one of those competing interests.
Late last year, Sanders was hired to lobby for the New York State School Board Association (NYSSBA), which represents over 700 school boards across the state. The New York City school board, the Panel of Education Policy, was once a member, until Klein ended that affiliation last year. NYSSBA was incensed at Klein’s decision to drop membership, especially since this fed into the group’s notion that that the chancellor was marginalizing the Panel from other state school boards.
As of now, the Panel is mainly a rubber stamp for Klein’s will. Sanders is lobbying his former colleagues to strengthen the Panel when reauthorizing the law, granting it the power to approve construction contracts, union contracts and certain regulations that have an impact on citywide issues, which he said was the original intent as written in the law.
Seeing well-funded groups like Learn NY, a pro-mayoral control lobbying organization, pushing its message on Albany lawmakers, the NYSSBA retained Sanders to lobby on its behalf. Having Sanders on its side “evens the playing field,” said Timothy Kremer, the group’s executive director.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” said Kremer of Learn NY’s reported $20 million budget. “But it is good to know that I have somebody who is aware of what the legislative intent was, who has contacts with those that will be making decisions in Albany, and who has contact with people in New York City.”
From the beginning, Sanders said he suspected something was off about mayoral control. When Klein moved to replace the 32 local school districts with six regional support centers, Sanders joined a lawsuit against the Department of Education to keep them and convened hearings about what he called a subversion of the intent of mayoral control.
Looking at the negotiations over renewal, Sanders said he agrees with increasing transparency and accountability, and more opportunities for parents to have their voices heard. He is also aware that the law’s many ambiguities have allowed Klein to bypass parents.
“One of the mistakes I made was that there wasn’t enough specificity,” Sanders said. “There wasn’t enough specific language diagramming what we meant.”
He did take credit for the sunset provision that is now forcing the debate about mistakes made in the first round.
But while Sanders lobbies for Sunshine Development School, Metschools Inc. and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators in addition to NYSSBA, education is not the only thing on his mind. Duane Reade and the East River Science Park corporation (which would be within his old Assembly district on Manhattan’s East Side) are also among his clients.
While he does not have the same role he used to, he admits, he still expects his colleagues’ respect in the mayoral control negotiations.
“I see myself as a young elder statesman,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I can opine, I can reflect, and I do. Sometimes ad nauseum.”
ABOVE: Steve Sanders helped write the mayoral control law. Now he is lobbying on behalf of the New York State School Board Association to make changes. Photo by Barry Sloan