Mayoral school takeovers face a rough road

Bob Peterson, a teachers’ union activist, remembers what happened when Wisconsin’s governor and Milwaukee’s mayor — both Democrats — proposed a mayoral takeover of that city’s troubled school district in 2009.

“It was not well received,” he said dryly.

Indeed, the proposal touched off a six-month battle for control of Milwaukee’s schools and an angry debate that still lingers in Wisconsin’s biggest city.

School-reform experts predict Milwaukee’s experience may soon be echoed in Kansas City, which has just started to wrestle with its own plan to place public schools in the mayor’s portfolio.

In Milwaukee, as in Kansas City, a mayoral takeover of a troubled urban school district had high-level support at first. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan backed it, as did some in the city’s business community. Influential state lawmakers, including some from Milwaukee’s central city, supported a measure giving the mayor the power to appoint a superintendent and significantly control its budget.

But opposition to a mayoral takeover quickly organized. It took just a few weeks for a coalition of parents, neighborhood leaders, some minority politicians and union leaders to mobilize in Milwaukee, picketing legislators’ homes, packing City Hall rallies and protesting on social media.

The Wisconsin legislature, called into a special session, never passed the 2009 mayoral takeover bill, which Peterson said currently sits on “the back burner.”

Mayoral school takeovers are messy politically, often racially charged and usually take years to pass — if ever. No American city has adopted direct mayoral school control since 2007, when the District of Columbia agreed to hand over school authority to Washington’s mayor. Less comprehensive mayoral school bills took effect in Los Angeles and Rhode Island in 2008; New York City renewed mayoral control in 2009.

“This is a high-risk endeavor,” said Frederick Hess, a nationally recognized school governance expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “You’re asking state legislators to tell voters in a major city that you’re changing the rules. It’s very easy for local groups … to view this as an attack on local autonomy.”

Dallas, Memphis, Minneapolis, Albuquerque and Seattle, among other cities, have discussed but not implemented mayoral control in recent years. Detroit had it, then lost it and talked about bringing it back.

Mayor Sly James, who has proposed a mayoral takeover structure for Kansas City Public Schools, conceded in an interview that the political hurdles are high — perhaps more like a pole vault.

“It is a pretty radical change from what people are used to,” James said. “People are always reluctant to undergo that type of deep change.”

However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Mayoral school takeover plans have passed in some cities, mostly in the 1990s. Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore are examples. Philadelphia and Indianapolis enacted forms of mayoral school oversight in the early 2000s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Successful mayoral takeover battles share several characteristics, said Kenneth Wong, who has written books and articles on school governance and mayoral authority in education.

“The first step is to mobilize the community” over the crisis of poorly performing schools, Wong said. “Your mayor (James) has been doing that.”

The more difficult challenge is to seek a broad local and state consensus behind a single reform plan. “It’s absolutely critical to have a unanimous state delegation,” he said.

But, so far, Kansas City’s legislative delegation is far from unanimous in its views on the James takeover plan.

Missouri House minority leader and Democrat Rep. Mike Talboy of Kansas City, for example, supported the mayoral takeover plan when it was announced in December. State senator and fellow Democrat Victor Callahan has firmly rejected the idea, instead proposing legislation that could make it easier for surrounding districts to change boundaries and assume control of some Kansas City schools.

The state Board of Education may have another alternative in mind, and local groups are also working on their own proposals for the district. The courts also may play a role. State courts invalidated a Los Angeles mayoral takeover in 2006, and local groups could sue in Kansas City, too, if a similar plan becomes law.

Missouri lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We really haven’t dug deep into those issues yet,” said Rep. Bob Nance, a Republican from Excelsior Springs. “It is something we have to do.”

James said he understands Kansas City politicians are split on the issue and even some City Council members are grumbling.

“We’ve got time to catch up with each other and exchange ideas,” he said, “and see if we can get on the same page and see what happens after that.”

Once those steps are taken, Wong said, the governor’s support is crucial. Gov. Jay Nixon, however, has refused to commit to mayoral control or any other takeover plan.

And Nixon’s involvement might not change the outcome anyway. In 2010, then-New York Gov. David Paterson introduced a bill handing control of the Rochester, N.Y., public schools to its mayor at the time, Robert Duffy.

Duffy made an impassioned case for a school takeover, suggesting the issue was a huge political gamble.

“This is political suicide, doing what we’re doing to push this change,” he said in one debate. “But it is so important for the future of our city and our children.”

As in Milwaukee, the strong push from the mayor and the governor fell short. A bill giving Rochester’s mayor school supervision passed one house of the legislature, but stalled in the other.

Again, local resistance was key, opponents said.

“The community came out resoundingly against mayoral control,” said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers’ Association.

As in Milwaukee, the Rochester school control bill isn’t dead, but it’s wounded. Duffy is now New York’s lieutenant governor, but his passion for mayoral control has apparently cooled. And the man who replaced him — Mayor Thomas Richards — said he won’t push for school control this year.

Meanwhile, Wong predicted that Kansas City stands a “better than 50-50 chance” of changing its school governance, slightly higher odds than he gives other cities in general.

But the American Enterprise Institute’s Hess said he’s worried about another possibility: That Missouri lawmakers may pass a watered-down mayoral control proposal, blurring the lines of authority and leaving responsibility unsettled. That’s happened in other states, he noted.

“Sometimes the remedy can be as bad as the disease,” he said.

“There’s no perfect way to govern ourselves in this world.”