ALBANY — An unusually tense legislative process to pick members for the state’s Board of Regents ended with a contested vote on Tuesday that some lawmakers said was a referendum on school reforms taking shape across the state.
In a joint session of the State Senate and Assembly, the legislature elected three incumbent Regents to new terms: Christine Cea of Staten Island; and James Cottrell and Wade Norwood, who do not represent specific parts of the state. A fourth incumbent seeking re-election, James Jackson, took himself out of the running on Monday evening as it became increasingly clear that he had lost the support of legislators representing his Regents district.
Jackson’s vacancy was filled by Monticello village judge Josephine Finn, a former community college professor, who beat out two other candidates by a margin of 121-20-10. Finn emerged as a new candidate to replace Finn on Monday during a last-minute interviewed convened by lawmakers.
All of the winners won handily over their challengers, but their margins were smaller than in previous elections. This year, the winners faced opposition from dozens of Democrats and Republicans who either supported challengers or abstained from voting altogether to protest the election process. Individual legislators’ votes were not immediately available.
The dissent reflected legislators’ efforts to respond to broad unpopularity among parents and teachers over the state’s implementation of Common Core learning standards and new teacher evaluations, both of which are approved and overseen by the Regents. After the vote, opposing legislators blamed the Regents for the rocky implementation and called for changes to who gets to make decisions about education policy.
“I think they all should have been tossed, fired, based upon the failed implementation of Common Core,” said Republican Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, who abstained. “We all want higher standards, but those four incumbents, they cause chaos within the whole education system.”
Skelos also used the opportunity to connect Democrats in the Assembly, who control the Regents voting process, to the controversial education policies overseen by Regents.
“All I know is that the Democrats today continue to vote for the status quo and are not listening to parents, are not listening to educators,” Skelos added.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver defended the process, saying that the votes from both houses of the legislature were needed to approve of the four Regents members.
“I think you saw it play out today,” Silver said. “The Assembly could not elect Regents on their own. Senators voted with members with the Assembly to provide the majority.”
Asked about Jackson’s resignation and Finn’s ascendance, Silver said it was a change driven by local Albany lawmakers.
“The regional representatives of that judicial district met [and] made a determination to do that,” Silver said.
One of those lawmakers, Patricia Fahy, praised Jackson on the floor of the Assembly. “We are very grateful for his work there and for his work on the Regents,” she said.
Cottrell, the reelected Regent, said Jackson’s departure was “a big loss to the board. He was such a wonderful contributor on education. He knew every issue. he’s been in the system for so long.”
Jackson was a teacher and principal for more than 40 years at Shaker High School.
Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who watched the voting process live and sat with the winning Regents, declined to comment on the process carried out by the legislature. But she defended the role of the Regents, saying they played a critical role in the way policy is set.
“I would say to anyone who thinks that this board rubber-stamps staff work at the education department, come to a board meeting and listen carefully,” Tisch said.