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1st August
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, August 1, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

This summer, with much fanfare, Schools Chancellor Klein has welcomed the first class into his new Leadership Academy, established to train principals to work in New York City public schools. The recognition of the need for innovative methods to train new principals is astute on the part of the Bloomberg administration. Given the demographics of the current staff, it seems reasonable to assume that, within five years, most of today’s principals will have left their posts. But one has to question the wisdom of the structure being established by Mr.Klein and Mayor Bloomberg.

This is, after all, a Leadership Academy for our public schools, despite the fact that Mr. Klein has cleverly arranged for it to be funded by private donations — most of which come from the Wallace Foundation, which is endowed by the family that made their fortune through their ownership of Reader’s Digest. This is not a private enterprise. As the press release announcing the launch of the project said, the “Leadership Academy is the centerpiece of the Department of Education’s systemwide effort to create more effective schools.” But just as Reader’s Digest offers condensed versions of articles and books, Mr. Klein’s offers a condensed version of public accountability. According to the Department of Education, “the Academy is an independent 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.”
The question is, why? The city’s Department of Education is already permitted to accept private donations without establishing a separate entity to do so. The argument that these are private funds does not shield them from the scrutiny of public review.

Make no mistake, the Leadership Academy is a public enterprise: The academy’s program is approved by the chancellor and his staff, who also select the academy’s leadership; the address of the Leadership Academy, printed on its letterhead, is in Room 210 of 52 Chambers Street, the Tweed Courthouse; the press release announcing the academy came from the Department of Education press office, public employees all, and the telephones are all part of the city phone system.

A number of former Board of Education officials — such as the former superintendent of District 26, Claire McIntee; the former superintendent of District 20, Vincent Grippo; and the former superintendent of District 28, Neil Krenik — have retired from the school system and resurfaced on the “private” payroll of the Leadership Academy. This enables them both to collect their considerable city pensions and to draw a large salary — just how much is a question that this private entity has no obligation to answer, although it is widely believed that they earn the same six-figure salaries they pulled down as superintendents. This, plus their city pensions, would result in a gross income larger than that of the chancellor.

This kind of double dipping, adding a salary to a pension, was sharply criticized by Department of Education officials just a few months ago, when they voided the consulting contracts of three apparently less-favored educrats. But those contracts, unlike the new Leadership Academy appointments, were open to public review and voted on, in public, by the old Board of Education. There is no transparency here.

There is a technical term for large sums of money that can be spent by public officials without oversight: a slush fund. To insure public confidence, the Leadership Academy ought to be returned to the public domain or contracted out to a truly independent entity.

If we are looking to train principals outside of the public sector, we could simply privatize the process. We could open it up to competition and let several contractors compete to demonstrate who can train the most effective school leaders.

Aside from the structure of the Leadership Academy,there are a few other aspects of the program that are distressing. According to the chancellor, the age range of the first class of prospective principals is from 26 to 66. The term “principal” is actually shorthand for the original title of “principal teacher.” It’s hard to believe that a person at the tender age of 26,who has taught for perhaps only three or four years, can have adequate experience and the respect of his or her professional colleagues — not to mention students’ parents — that such a title implies. A candidate who has not managed a class for a reasonable number of years cannot be expected to manage an entire school. The last thing the system and our children need are schools led by fetal principals. At the same time, while a 66-year-old rookie might make an interesting subject for a sit com, it hardly seems to be a prudent public investment over the long haul.

Finally, Mr. Klein boasts that 60% of the candidates come from minority groups.The current cadre of principals is already diverse, and Mr. Klein has declared them, by and large, to be failures. Overall diversity means nothing in the individual school setting, where only one person is in charge. It seems to me that the only criterion that needs to be considered here is merit.

The Leadership Academy may be a good idea, but we’d be better off training the right people within a structure that is both honest and transparent.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

 

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