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21st February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 21, 2003
By Andrew Wolf

There is a battle looming between the mayor and the state legislature. No, not the one about the budget, though that one promises to be bloody. It is the fight over the loose ends left hanging by the legislature when they gave the mayor control of the school system last year.

The loose ends have to do with the relationship between the schools and the local communities. Since legislators represent local communities, this is of primary concern to them.
The mayor wants to establish absolute control of the schools and their policies. So, before the legislature could even consider possible changes to the school board structure, the mayor and Chancellor Klein made a preemptive strike. They combined the existing 32 districts into 10 regions, and actually appointed regional superintendents to run them. These 10 will, in turn, appoint 10 local area supervisors. But these supervisors are expected to run “networks” of schools, unconnected by geography. Neighborhoods appear to have no place at the mayor’s table.

This plan has proceeded so far that the sitting superintendents have been stripped of much of their power, perhaps illegally, even before their contracts expire on midnight June 30.

All this does not sit well with the most important members of the legislature to Mr. Bloomberg, the five Republican state senators whose districts include parts of the city. As soon as the mayor’s plan was put into place,the five issued a statement denouncing the mayor’s action as premature.

In their haste, the mayor and Mr. Klein are making fatal mistakes for which our children and communities will pay for generations.

Unfortunately, the joint legislative commission on which the senators wanted the mayor to wait doesn’t have any better ideas.That plan is now out, but it is as unsatisfying as the mayor’s blueprint. Implied, but not expressly articulated, is the retention of the 32 current school districts. Manhattan Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democratic chair of the Assembly’s education committee, believes that this is fully compatible with the mayor’s proposed structure.

But his Democratic colleague on the Senate side, Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, disagrees. He has already filed suit to stop the mayor from implementing his plan. Mr. Kruger is uncomfortable with the mayor taking every aspect of school governance further away from the neighborhoods.The idea of the new regions crossing county lines is particularly objectionable to Mr.Kruger,and it may cause legal problems with federal funding that is apportioned by county.

What the mayor has managed to accomplish during his brief stewardship of the schools is to provide a powerful example to those who seek checks and balances in governance and transparency in public policy. Rather than come up with a plan, hold hearings, and make some changes in the plan as a result of the public discussion, the mayor has proceeded in secrecy and exceeded his authority.

If it is necessary to hold elaborate public hearings to discuss every aspect of the plans to redevelop the site of the World Trade Center site, why is the future of our children considered a lesser concern? Why must these plans be developed in the darkness of the backrooms of Tweed rather than in the bright light of public scrutiny?

The community school boards came into being in 1969, created after much discussion and anguish.They were an experiment entered into with hope and trepidation. It is clear that the original structure failed in many regards.But the concept of local input into schools is important. We never question the right of people in Scarsdale and Great Neck to have input into their schools, and New York City residents deserve nothing less.

But the joint legislative commission would limit the membership of the new boards to eight parent representatives, supplemented by two community members chosen by the borough presidents, and one student. The idea of replacing a democratically elected panel, open to all, with one that is appointed is a violation of our core values.

If the current elections do not attract large turnouts, then we should fix the elections, not remove the franchise. It will not take much to fix the system. Simply hold the balloting during the regularly scheduled November election rather than as the only election in May. At the same time establish a simpler voting procedure to replace the Byzantine proportional representation method that few really understand and eliminate the confusing paper ballots.

And the idea that only parents deserve empowerment is another concept that seems to me to be anti-democratic. Whatever happened to universal suffrage? We all pay for the schools, after all, and all have a communal stake in their success.

To counterbalance mistakes from the top down, it is valuable to take another look from the bottom up. The idea, as suggested by the legislative commission, that the boards should approve a district’s comprehensive educational plan may well be moot, if these plans are to be dictated by the schools chancellor.But there is another valuable role they can play to balance central authority when it conflicts with local interests.
The local boards should be empowered to become the conduit through which individual school communities can petition to become charter schools. Current law makes this process nearly impossible, by demanding that 50% of parents with children currently in a school approve such a plan. A more realistic process is sorely needed.

Charter schools are fast becoming the only alternative to one-size-fits-all education programs, decided upon in secrecy, which fail to serve our children while doing damage to the greatest resource we have in our city: our neighborhoods.

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

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