With districts in New York state looking down the barrel of $836 million in threatened funding cuts, Richard P. Mills has his work cut out for him—even as he plans to leave office in June after 14 years at the helm of the state’s education system.
Mr. Mills, who is among the nation’s longest-serving state chiefs, will have his experience sorely tested starting this week, as the state legislature takes up Gov. David A. Paterson’s proposals to plug a $1.5 billion budget gap to a large degree by slashing school aid.
And in pledging to help districts weather one of the worst financial crises to hit schools in more than a decade, Mr. Mills is also offering a perspective born of experience.
He came on board in August 1995—just as states were coming out of a recession earlier in that decade—and saw school districts affected by the recession in the first part of this decade as well.
“I’ve been a chief for 20 years in two states, in good times and in challenging economic times,” said Mr. Mills, who served for 7½ years as Vermont’s commissioner before coming to the top post in New York 13 years ago. “You can make progress in both environments.”
Still, the short-term challenges are daunting for him and for districts statewide.
Under the budget cuts proposed last week by Gov. Paterson, a Democrat, schools would still get more than they did last year—about 5 percent, for a total of $20.7 billion. But that’s less additional money than they had counted on when they built their budgets. The legislature was scheduled to return Nov. 18 for a special session to take up the governor’s proposal.
“We think that many of the advocates may not like these cuts, but they can’t say these are beyond the perimeter that would be reasonable to cut at this time, with this deficit,” Mr. Paterson said in a Nov. 12 press conference, adding that education spending has grown by 16 percent in the past three years.
But school groups reacted swiftly and harshly to the proposal.
“Midyear cuts hurt,” said Geri D. Palast, the executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, in a statement. The New York City-based advocacy group waged a successful, decade-long battle in the state courts to get more funding for schools, particularly in New York City. “Schools already have received their funding, and now they will have to make tough decisions: Do I cut the before- or after-school programs targeted at helping struggling readers? Do I cut the librarian, art, or science teachers? Do I remove all access to [Advanced Placement] classes?” Ms. Palast said.
Time to Move
Mr. Mills is less pessimistic. His departure later this year will come at a time when he sees himself as at the top of his game and wanting to hand off the baton before he “got tired and ran out of ideas.” Now 63, Mr. Mills said he plans to continue to work in education policy.
In charge of 7,000 public and private schools educating 3.1 million students, as well as higher education, Mr. Mills pushed policies, years before the No Child Left Behind Act, to raise academic standards and eliminate a dual-track education system that put only some high school students on a path toward college.
“I think one of Commissioner Mills’ achievements is a consistent belief that all kids can achieve and should achieve at the same levels, even with different socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Kevin Casey, the executive director of the School Administrators Association of New York State.
He certainly hasn’t been risk-averse during his tenure.
In November 1995, he warned more than a dozen failing New York City schools they’d have to improve by the end of the school year or be closed. He started a campaign to require more math and science in high school and at least one year’s credit in a foreign language. And he pushed to require virtually all students to pass the more difficult set of regents graduation exams that were reserved, at the time, for college-bound students.
In 2000, under Mr. Mills’ leadership, the state adopted the first phase of a plan to begin rating schools based on test scores. Also that year, he stood his ground after some schools launched a high-profile—and unsuccessful—battle to use alternative assessments, such as individually tailored student projects, rather than the state’s graduation exit exam.
Testing was often at the heart of disagreements with the teachers’ unions.
“There was disagreement about the extent of testing, and whether testing was the most valid approach, and whether the tradeoffs were worth it,” said Richard C. Iannuzzi, the president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. “But the thing that will stick with me about him, to his credit, is the raising of standards in New York state. A lot of groups gave him a hard time, but he stuck with it.”
Mr. Mills also drew criticism when the state took over the failing Roosevelt district on Long Island in 2002, which five years later was found to have run up a $12 million deficit while under state control.
The task of replacing Mr. Mills will fall mostly to a seven-member board of regents search committee. New York’s state education department structure is unique in that it doesn’t just serve K-12 education, but also encompasses higher education, libraries, state museums, and licensing and oversight of 48 professions, from teachers to nurses.
The goal is to have a new chief selected by the 16-member board by the spring—before Mr. Mills’ departure in June. And the successful candidate is likely to share at least one trait of Mr. Mills’.
“The next commissioner must be a risk-taker who is willing to explore all kinds of alternatives,” Robert M. Bennett, the chancellor of the board of regents said.
A version of this article appeared in the November 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as N.Y. Budget Woes Offer Chief Final Challenge