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25th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 25, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Whenever our friends in the New Tweed Ring — the Department of Education — want to discredit the growing number of opponents to their structural plan, they always chant the same old mantra: Political leaders who disagree with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein’s plan to eliminate the existing 32 school districts and create in their place 10 regions simply want to preserve the status quo. Parents and community leaders are similarly interested in preserving their influence and — of all things — their property values.

Certainly, the current system is imperfect. But it has been improved by previous reforms of recent vintage. Now, an imperfect system is being replaced by a sinister structure, one that would warm the heart of the man who built the building the Department of Education now occupies.

The abuses of William MarcyTweed and others of his time led to the creation of a civil service system. We can scoff at the bureaucratic excesses that this system created, but it seems that every time we relax, more sinister demons come flying at us.Those of us who supported mayoral control of the school system are now shaking our heads in a combination of dismay and disgust. A flawed system is turning into a malignant one, with all of the potential pitfalls that unrestrained power and patronage can bring.
All power to restructure the schools, under law, flows from the state. It was the state that gave the mayor the powers he has, but it is clear that he has greatly exceeded that authority.

In the first place,there was a clear intent by the state Legislature to create an oversight body that would take its role seriously. But Mr. Bloomberg compromised the Panel for Educational Policy from the get-go by making it clear he would accept no criticism from his appointees — a majority of the members. Say what you will about the old Board of Education, but they actually discussed and debated educational initiatives, and they actually voted on key contracts and leases and published them each month in their calendar.That transparency has been lost.

In the past, the hiring of key personnel was done through an open process of advertisements and public postings. But under Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein, the key appointments of the 10 regional superintendents were done completely outside of this process — a remarkable and dangerous precedent. Each of these appointees will receive a salary of $165,000 a year.

As reported by The New York Sun several weeks ago, and discussed at lenth in this column, the selection process that led to the appointments of the deputies to these regional superintendents (20 new hires at $145,000 a year) — and the 100 or so local instructional supervisors, at $135,000 each — was a total sham.The selections were apparently made ahead of time, and the advertisements and postings seem to have been a charade to disguise that fact.

But the worst is yet to come.

With great fanfare, the mayor announced that he is going to place a “parent coordinator” in each of the system’s 1,200 schools. This new bureaucracy is developing into a “Bloomberg Battalion” or “Klein Korps” of patronage employees who owe their jobs to the mayor and his chancellor. Meanwhile, other employees, including paraprofessionals and school aides who currently work with children, are being fired.The potential for abuse is enormous.

The tip-off to possible abuse is the procedure being used to hire the supervisors of the parent coordinators. Postings were issued last week for 11 of the top positions in this emerging parent bureaucracy. “Postings” is supposed to mean just what it sounds like: Job vacancies are actually posted in the schools, district offices, and other outposts of the school system, to inform qualified staff of available job opportunities.The timing of these new postings makes it perfectly clear that, once again, the process is a charade.

At 4:17 p.m., on Wednesday, April 16, the postings were dispatched via email to these locations. How convenient that this came through more than an hour past dismissal on the last day of school before the Easter and Passover break. Resumes for the position of director of parent support and customer service are due today, thus virtually no school employee will ever see this job opportunity, which pays as much as $90,000 a year. Resumes for the first 10 regional parent support team leaders, jobs that pay as much as $85,000 a year, are due next Friday.

Among the nuggets in these postings are further clues as to just how huge a bureaucracy is being created. The posting mentions that the regional parent support team leaders will “supervise regional parent support staff.” Is that two people, or is it the minimum of 10 — times 10 regions — that insiders tell me is actually being contemplated?

The qualifications for these regional positions are also troublesome. Despite the lofty $85,000 salary potential, a college degree is not required. This sends the wrong message.

I’m also told that despite assurances that principals would choose their school-based parent coordinators, they will have to do so from a list vetted — presumably for political reliability — by the Department of Education.The qualifications for these positions, which are expected to pay salaries equivalent to that of a teacher, are said to be extremely loose and amorphous.

At a time of fiscal pressure, a new structure that could well turn out to be nothing more than a de facto political machine is a luxury we cannot afford. Scarce resources need to be directed to the children in the classroom, not to an army of bureaucrats whose main job it will be to convince parents that the mayor really is doing a good job running the schools.

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


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