Cuomo hedges on mayoral control

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Andrew Cuomo speaks at the ABNY luncheon. (Governor's Office)
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Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters on Friday that the "most serious issues" in the state budget are now taxes and charter schools, shrugging off the campaign by Mayor Bill de Blasio for a tax to fund pre-kindergarten.

And then he advocated, without mentioning de Blasio by name, limitations on mayoral control of public schools.

"Pre-K is what we said pre-K is going to be," said Cuomo, after a speech to the Association for a Better New York in Manhattan, emphasizing that the state would provide funding for a statewide expansion, without the tax on high earners that was first proposed by de Blasio at an ABNY event in 2012.

Instead, Cuomo—who is running for re-election this year—focused on the tax cuts he's proposed in the budget, and his recent promise to protect charter schools, which he called "vitally important" to the state's education system.

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"I think it's essential that the charter movement be protected," he told the crowd of real estate and business executives.

That line drew applause from the crowd, and later, praise from Jay Kriegel, a senior adviser at Related Companies and former aide to John Lindsay, who said charter backers were "grateful" for his support.

Cuomo, speaking hypothetically, said that under certain circumstances mayoral control could pose an existential threat to individual charters and the broader charter movement.

"It's possible that a mayor could say, under mayoral control, 'I don't like charter schools, I'm not going to locate or fund any new charter schools,'" he said. "And it's possible the whole movement would dry up. I think that as a matter of policy would be bad for the city, bad for the state.

"I want to make sure the laws are changed so that we have those basic protections. I think we can do it in a way that doesn't interfere with mayoral control, and respects the concept of mayoral control, but protects charter schools and want to get those laws changed in this budget April 1." 

Pressed by reporters later, Cuomo described some limits to mayoral control.

"The question becomes if a mayor says, 'You can't co-locate and I'm not giving you any funding to go anywhere else,' you could de facto put charter schools out of business," Cuomo said. "You could de facto stop the charter movement. And we don't want that to happen in any city. And the state law would have to address that. There are a number of theories about how to get at that, but that's what we're trying to do."

A reporter asked how that wouldn't amount to impinging on mayoral control.

Cuomo's response: "If you wanted to be able to say that a mayor should be able to stop all charter schools as part of mayoral control, then I would disagree. If you say that's what a mayor should be able to do, close charter schools, and stop any charter schools from being developed, I think that goes too far. But that's not the current law. The state can also do charter schools in a city."

"If you wanted to be able to say that a mayor should be able to stop all charter schools as part of mayoral control, then I would disagree," he said. "If you would say that's what a mayor should be able to do … I think that goes too far."

Cuomo didn't specify what form his protections might take, saying there were "a number of theories about how to get at that, but that's what we're trying to do."

But he praised the pro-charter policies in the State Senate's budget resolution, which would increase per-pupil tuition that public schools must pay to charter schools for their students, guarantees that charter schools won't have to pay rent to use public school buildings and would require New York City to offer facilities aid to charter schools that are expanding or that lose public space.

Cuomo was less supportive of the Senate's proposal to scale back his property tax cuts, and to exempt New York City residents from income tax cuts.

"I believe that is the most serious issue that we have on the table," he said. "I am not going to pass a budget that shorts the people of New York City. I'm not going to pass a budget that gives a tax break to people on Long Island and a tax break in upstate New York and leaves out the people of New York City. I don't know what the thinking is, but whatever their thinking is, it's not going to fly with me and we won't get a budget done on that basis." 

The Senate plan also didn't include de Blasio's proposed pre-K tax, though the mayor celebrated its $540 billion commitment to New York City as a symbolic victory.

But the governor said today that no city would receive a "preordained" amount of money.

"It's in essence first come, first serve, and I want to use that competition to get them to bring the units online quickly," said Cuomo, who suggested that de Blasio's public relations push had done little to sway him.

"Pre-K is going to be exactly the way I said it was three months ago," he said.

Winning mayoral control of New York City schools was a signal achievement for Michael Bloomberg, who succeeded in getting approval from Albany for the change in 2002. Power over school policy had been in the hands of the Board of Education since the Lindsay administration.