Common Core fallout prompts Board of Regents shake-up

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Catherine Collins, from Buffalo, was voted onto the board today. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY—The two long-serving members of the state Board of Regents ousted by lawmakers on Tuesday were brave soldiers for the Common Core standards and other recent education reform efforts, board chancellor Merryl Tisch said.

And ultimately, she said, Robert Bennett and James Dawson, each of whom have served more than two decades, were casualties of recent battles over the controversial policies.

“Do I see these replacements as a reaction to what people are hearing in their home districts? Absolutely,” Tisch told reporters after members of the Assembly and Senate deliberated in a joint session for five hours on seven of the board’s 17 seats. “A lot is frustration. A lot is misinformation. But … these are remarkably courageous public servants who really stood on a front line and took a lot of incoming, a lot of incoming. [They] put themselves in public space a lot. [They] put themselves in harm’s way a lot.

“But at the end of the day, they did it to serve the communities of New York State and to put them in standing to build capacity for the future, and that is why I believe New York will continue to lead.”

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Ultimately, the Assembly Democrats, who control the process, booted Bennett and Dawson while re-electing three others, two of whom are among the loudest critics of the board’s policies. Lawmakers also chose four new members, all women with experience in public education. Three are minorities.

The makeup of the powerful education policymaking panel will be drastically different, with increased racial and gender diversity and a greater representation of public school educators.

Tuesday’s elections were the result of leftover anger and concern regarding the Common Core rollout, an issue that dominated the legislative session last year and the most recent election cycle. The controversy manifested itself most clearly this year in the ouster of the two incumbents, as it seems to have otherwise dissipated.

But lawmakers’ overhaul of the board is also reflective of a sea change in the Assembly Democratic conference, which is now led by Speaker Carl Heastie and increasingly influenced by new members who are less wedded to the chamber’s traditions.

Former speaker Sheldon Silver, who was arrested on federal corruption charges in January and subsequently replaced with Heastie, held the position for more than 20 years and made decisions primarily with an inner circle of long-serving members who held key committee positions.

It was a widely regarded tradition to re-elect incumbent regents who sought to continue serving on the board, so the elections were rarely dramatic affairs.

That began to change last year when, still under Silver’s leadership, the Assembly replaced one of four incumbents seeking re-election. Albany regent James Jackson, who had served one three-year term, resigned under pressure and was replaced with Josephine Finn, a judge from Sullivan County who was handpicked by the chamber’s leadership and interviewed at the last minute.

Even though lawmakers were more vocally critical of the board last year, they made a much stronger statement on Tuesday, replacing two members who had served for more than two decades and electing four new members.

Bennett, former chancellor of the board who has served since 1995, and Dawson, a geology professor at SUNY Plattsburgh who has served since 1993, got word in the days before Tuesday's election that they would not be reappointed.

Although there were still legislators, particularly Republicans, who argued on Tuesday that the process of electing regents needed reform, the debate was permeated with a sense of at least incremental if not radical progress.

Some members were elated, feeling free from forces they argued halted change.

“When you change a precedent, it always requires a little more angst,” said Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a Democrat from Westchester who has emerged as a leader among newer members and has been more willing than her colleagues to criticize the chamber’s leadership. “There was a precedent to re-elect. If somebody was an incumbent and they were up again, there was almost an acceptance that they would be re-nominated.

“Last year, we changed that for the first time,” she said. “We really disrupted the process that had been institutionalized. Once it’s disrupted, it’s easy to disrupt multiple times. Once you break the ice, once you break that ceiling, you change the way we do business.”

Assembly Democratic majority leader Joe Morelle, who is second in command to Heastie, said his colleagues "are less willing to simply say just because someone has served in the past that they automatically deserve a right to continue in the future."

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democrat from Albany and a former school board member who was openly critical that more regents weren’t replaced last year, said Tuesday’s elections were “exceptionally gratifying.”

She said last year's events inspired more of her colleagues to get involved in the process and more candidates to apply.

More than 50 people applied for the spots, and the Assembly’s education and higher education committees held extensive interviews over several days. In addition, lawmakers in local delegations where there were open or contested seats held independent interviews.

The leadership change contributed, too, Fahy said.

“I had been pushing even under the previous speaker, but maybe the new speaker was more open to this, too, and maybe he wasn’t as wedded, because he wouldn’t have been around when the previous [regents] were appointed,” Fahy said.

Heastie, during a news conference on Tuesday, said he had no “strict policy” regarding whether to re-elect incumbents. Rather, he followed the recommendations of the relevant committee chairs—Assemblywomen Catherine Nolan and Deborah Glick, Democrats from Queens and Manhattan, respectively.

“There is no comparison of policy,” he said, answering a question about whether his leadership style was different than Silver’s. “The interviews were done by our two wonderful chairs and the decision was made to not support two incumbent regents.”

Tisch, who will be up for re-election next year, said it was lawmakers’ prerogative to choose whether to re-elect incumbents or select new board members. “I would never second guess that,” she said.

Even so, she defended the records of Bennett and Dawson, who will attend their final regents meetings next week. Neither regent was immediately available for comment.

"These people serve well, and they serve with distinction,” Tisch said. “They’re not putting anything in their pockets by serving. ... But as I said, this is the legislative prerogative to put in place a slate, and I believe that this board will continue to serve with distinction.”

The following were confirmed by the Legislature on Tuesday: Incumbents Lester Young, an at-large member from Brooklyn; Kathleen Cashin, who represents Brooklyn; and Roger Tilles, from Long Island. New members Judith Chin, from Queens; Catherine Collins, from Buffalo; Judith Johnson, from the Hudson Valley; and Beverly Ouderkirk, from the North Country.

The members will serve five-year terms.