Taking the Difficult Path

By James Merriman

Recently, one of the mayor’s most important initiatives, building and preserving 200,000 affordable housing units, has hit some roadblocks. While the City Council unanimously passed the legislation that allows for bigger and bulkier buildings to be erected than zoning laws would allow in exchange for the developer making a percentage of the apartments permanently affordable, it balked at the first actual building proposal that came before it and appears headed to do the same with a second (while approving a third in the Bronx).

Actually, the City Council as a body didn’t so much object as did the two councilmembers in whose districts two of the three projects are slated to be built. But according to City Council protocol, when it comes to specific land use decisions, each individual member has sovereignty over his or her own district; if a member objects to a project within his or her district, that project is effectively D.O.A.

These two cases are excellent illustrations of NIMBYism (not in my backyard): everyone agrees in principle with increasing density in order to achieve more affordability; they just want it to happen across town. But, given the City Council’s practice of letting each councilmember hold a veto over projects in his or her district, it also shows “local control” in action.

On the one hand, local control allows small and localized groups of citizens to have meaningful input into decisions affecting their neighborhoods. A relatively small number of active vocal citizens have the potential to make a councilmember think hard about going against them. While this represents democracy in action, it makes solving citywide problems, even less controversial ones such as increasing the affordable housing stock, a lot more difficult if not impossible as the mayor is finding out.

What does this have to do with charter schools? Well imagine if individual councilmembers or Community Education Councils, for that matter, had an analogous power over approving new charter schools or the often contentious process of co-locating a charter school. We certainly wouldn’t have the 216 charter schools we have today and co-locations would be rarer still, even where a building was sitting completely empty. Fortunately, authorizing decisions are made at the state level by either SUNY or the Board of Regents; co-location decisions are effectively decided by the mayor (technically by his appointees on the Panel for Education Policy but they serve at his pleasure).

During Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, charter schools were co-located even, at times, over the loud opposition of local voices and local elected leaders. The administration took a lot of heat for it, but remained focused on the ultimate goal of improving public education for low-income students, a problem that is as urgent and important as any other. The mayor and then Chancellors Klein and Walcott understood that there was a citywide problem that required a citywide perspective.

Now in some ways, Mayor de Blasio is no different in his perspective. He has fought for the extension of mayoral control (winning two short renewals) because he too believes that improving education requires centralized power. But at the very same time he has been pleading with Albany to give him the power he says he needs, there has emerged a troubling pattern around charter school co-locations.

Even on the relatively few occasions that the New York City Department of Education has agreed to co-locate a new or expanded charter school, the mayor’s office has tended to show deference to local elected officials’ objections. Where a school community or the union has ginned up opposition and gotten the local councilmember to back them, the smart money is that the NYC DOE will withdraw the co-location that they previously backed.

This contradiction between the Mayor deferring to local officials on co-location, where he has the power to override their views, but showing immense frustration with these same local interests on affordable housing (where he doesn’t have the power to override them) is pretty obvious. One would hope that having to reckon with his housing policy being gnawed away at one building at a time will stiffen his spine generally and make him appreciate even more the power of mayoral control—and the need to exercise it in the teeth of opposition.

The Mayor is clear when it comes to affordable housing that parochial interests can’t be allowed to trump effective solutions. He should be equally clear-eyed about siting new, effective charter schools. Being resolute in his conduct while listening to local voices (though not always agreeing with them) is the approach he is likely going to have to take as he strives to provide a better living for all NYers. And exercising that power in school sitings even when it means over-riding local control is certainly a great way to show Albany that he is deserving of a long-extension of the very power he is asking state legislators to grant him.