It was a political tar pit from the start: an order from the state's highest court to improve New York City's schools at whatever the cost, leaving the details in the air. Gov. George E. Pataki, who spent a decade fighting the suit, had to figure out how to come up with the money in tough times. So he called for a blue-ribbon panel to study the topic.
Last week, when the results of the panel's seven-month study were finally in, the governor called a news conference with Frank G. Zarb, his handpicked head of the Commission on Education Reform.
"It has a long list of recommendations for change, and I'm sure some of them I will think are tremendous," Mr. Pataki said of the report, calling it a framework for historic change. "Some of them I will probably disagree with."
Had he accepted, rejected, celebrated or dismissed it? Some said all four.
The report had finally exploded and the governor was now standing a safe distance away, waiting to see which way the smoke would blow. As a practical matter, it was a strategy he had used, now and then, throughout his tenure, one that opponents and allies say has taken him far: he is a three-term Republican governor in a state where Democrats have a vast and increasing edge in voter enrollment.
Indeed, when facing a thorny political issue or weighty public policy debate, Mr. Pataki's way, not unfamiliar to other elected leaders, has often been to use reticence, adopt some careful nuance or remain relatively quiet.
It is not as if state legislators had been particularly forthcoming with specific plans of their own for school financing. But, in a state like New York, with a purposefully strong executive branch, many lawmakers, lobbyists and others said Mr. Pataki's approach on the issue was extremely low-key to the point of inaudible. And by sometimes eschewing the bully pulpit, critics in both parties say, the governor creates a vacuum that only adds to Albany's anemic mood on many issues.
Pataki aides stress that his refusal to rush a decision or to try to grab a headline is exactly what makes him a bold, effective leader.
"It is a very thoughtful leadership style, it is not 'in your face,' " said Lisa Dewald Stoll, Mr. Pataki's communications director. "The governor's style, in the end, is to call on the better nature of people to rise to the challenge, to say, 'Let's get together, let's build consensus and let's do what's right for the people of New York State as a whole,' and that is a powerful argument to have behind you."
That style was evident in the debate over the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, when Mr. Pataki gauged public reaction, saw the families of victims opine and then moved toward a rising consensus. In the controversy over the operation of the Indian Point nuclear plant, he commissioned a panel, called for a study, shelved it and then tap-danced skillfully around proclaiming a firm position.
Mr. Pataki has moved similarly - either hanging on the sideline or reversing himself after it was clear he had no choice - on other contentious issues, lawmakers, legislative officials and lobbyists say.
"This governor, that is how he is," said one state Republican official who declined to be identified by name. "Is he a conservative? Is he a liberal? Is he downstate or upstate? It depends on the day and the issue. He's proven himself to be very adaptable."
In the debate about education financing, the governor's behavior on March 29 was classic, according to people in state government who have watched him work over the years.
At the news conference, Mr. Zarb said the panel, working to answer the order by the Court of Appeals, found that providing a sound basic education to every child in New York would cost an extra $2.5 billion to $5.6 billion a year and require aggressive reforms to guarantee the investment. (A backup study said the cost was billions more, with up to 88 percent of the money to go to the city.)
But by Friday, Mr. Pataki had still not taken a clear fiscal position. He had not said how much it would cost. Nor had he said which reforms he preferred or how to reconcile the report from Mr. Zarb with its underlying study. Though he has already written in his budget a separate plan - to use about $2 billion in gambling revenues to pay for education - he had not even said if an ultimate solution should be contained in this year's budget or not.
Predictably, Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, said the release of the report had taken the state backward.
"Now, it is up to us to go to the drawing board," Mr. Silver said.
Even Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate's Republican majority leader, when asked if he believed the report brought state leaders any closer to meeting the court's mandate than before, flatly said, "No."
Assemblyman William L. Parment, a Democrat from Jamestown, N.Y., said Mr. Pataki has repeatedly showed a willingness to "try and duck" the issue of education financing. "Several times, George Pataki has talked about this question in his State of the State speeches,'' Mr. Parment said, "but his budgets have never attempted to correct the inequities in school financing."
So far, it is unclear if the governor is winning politically. The politics are complicated: officials must figure out how to distribute the increased aid without exacerbating the perennial rivalries between upstate and downstate, and the suburbs and the city.
When the report landed here last week, many angry lawmakers of both major parties said it did little to clarify things. They said it was time for the governor to weigh in on his position to begin negotiations.
Aides to the governor said the Legislature was only too happy to have the report issued on March 29, two days before the close of the fiscal year, because it gave them a convenient scapegoat for a late state budget. They said the report was proof that Mr. Pataki had accomplished the two main goals he plainly stated when he appointed the commission in September.
Those goals, the aides said, were to seize a "historic opportunity" to reform New York's educational system by bringing together a bipartisan group of leaders from across the state, who would offer a series of reforms, and to fulfill the court's mandate.
"The Zarb Commission was successful in that endeavor and have presented the governor and Legislature with a tremendous framework from which to build consensus as we move forward," Ms. Stoll said.
She and others said the governor, in proposing in his budget to use gambling revenues for education, was the only person in state government with a plan on the table. That is still a starting point for talks, they said. Mr. Silver, by contrast, had declined to identify his plan for meeting the court mandate.
Still, Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the plaintiffs that brought the case in May 1993, said: "I don't know what to make of the governor's position. I don't know where he stands."