Menino, Bloomberg ... Bernero?

By Neal McNamara

Would the city of Lansing take control of the Lansing School District?

During a post-election victory on-air chat with local radio host Tim Barron last Wednesday, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero took a stab at something that in the past he has backed away from: being open to the idea of bringing the Lansing School District under the control of the city.

Barron had asked Bernero about his “vision” for the school system, and, among other things, Bernero said that he had no real legal authority to change the schools.

“In some cities, the mayor runs the schools,” Bernero told Barron. “We don’t have that. If we did, I’d give it a shot.”

But Randy Hannan, Bernero’s deputy chief of staff, said the mayor definitely is not interested in taking the schools under the city’s wing.

Bernero would “be willing to take on that challenge if it came to pass, but he’s certainly not seeking it,” Hannan said. Hannan said that Bernero has a good relationship with Superintendent T.C. Wallace, and is pleased with the team in place on Kalamazoo Street.

As far as if the “challenge came to pass,” Hannan said that he did not know of a circumstance that the city would have to take over the schools, but it would probably have to be an act of the Legislature.

Across the rest of the country, mayoral control of school systems has been a rising trend. Large cities like Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia all have school departments as opposed to school districts, and the mayor appoints a school board. Similar cities to Lansing — small state capitals — like Jackson, Miss., and Harrisburg, Pa., also have mayorcontrolled schools. Milwaukee may move toward mayoral control soon.

Lansing Schools spokesman Steve Serkaian said that there’s no compelling reason — no widespread dysfunction like in big-city districts — for a city takeover of schools.

“There has to be a demonstrated cause that a city takeover would help address and resolve,” he said. “And in Lansing’s case, there’s really no compelling reason why anyone should contemplate a city takeover. We have a strong and competent board of education that has hired a strong and experienced superintendent who in turn has managed an experienced leadership team that has helped turned around Lansing’s student achievement issues.”

specifically highlighted that the school system has made adequate
yearly progress — a benchmark of achievement under the No Child Left
Behind Act — for the second year, and 31 schools, including Sexton and
Everett high schools, made AYP this year.

School Board President Hugh Clarke said much the same.

“My question would be, ‘Why?’” Clarke said.

said that the school system’s problems are out of its control —
students leaving the district because of their parents losing jobs, or
budget problems caused by state laws on school funding. Both Serkaian
and Clarke pointed out that a city takeover would eliminate a publicly
elected school board, if Lansing were to use a model similar to other

In 2000,
under former mayor Dennis Archer, the city of Detroit was given control
of its schools by the Legislature. However, that was repealed in 2004,
though there is pressure on Detroit Mayor David Bing to take control of
the schools. Bing has said he’s open to the idea.

Wong, an education professor at Brown University, has studied
mayorcontrolled school systems. Wong found that mayor-controlled school
systems allocate more resources to instruction rather than bureaucracy,
and that the schools “closed the gap” of student achievement against
peers in non-mayor controlled schools.

benefit, Wong found, was that the elimination of an elected school
board took away individual school board members’ focus on individual
neighborhood issues. He also found that mayors tended to be more
responsive to public outcry over the state of schools.

in general are very sensitive to a lot of data,” Wong said. “The
incentive is they will be held accountable in an election.”

Wong said he did not see much cronyism with mayors appointing friends and contributors to the school board.

a reason why: transparency and accountability,” Wong said. “Everything
has to be in the public’s eye. It makes it difficult for the mayor to
appoint someone who would be a crony.”

said that a city school takeover is probably best left up to larger
districts and reiterated that Bernero has no intention of adding it to
his plate.

won’t speculate about what kinds of things would happen before (the
city would take over the schools). It’s more a reflection of the
mayor’s character: He doesn’t shrink from a challenge, he embraces
them. He would embrace it like he does everything, but he’s not seeking
it,” Hannan said.