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20th December

First Published in The New York Sun, December 20, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

When Mayor Bloomberg won his fight to take control of the city’s school system, one question left unanswered was the fate of the city’s community school boards. A 20-member panel has been appointed to hold hearings on their status. The first hearing in the Bronx was held yesterday.

The idea of community control of the public schools took shape in the mid-1960s, when it became clear that changing demographics and white flight had made racial integration of New York City’s schools a virtual impossibility. Community control of the schools through these school boards found a receptive ear among the growing number of militants who were more interested in running the schools than integrating them.
The resulting school districts are wildly variable in size; the largest has an enrollment four times the size of the smallest. Most have not been redrawn since the late 1960s. These districts have little relationship to our city’s many neighborhoods. But there is a political subdivision that does — the city’s 62 community board districts. Because they reflect neighborhood and geographic boundaries in a unique way, they also to some extent reflect current school zoning patterns. All city services except education use these boundaries. Each of the 62 districts has an existing district services cabinet and district manager, which plugs right into the mayor’s office and other levels of city government.

System-wide reform is a good opportunity to revisit exactly what functions the school districts perform. On one level, they handle a variety of “administrivia,” things like budget and personnel. Some functions, like processing payroll, could be combined among several districts. There is no reason why there need to be six such offices in Manhattan, six in the Bronx, 12 in Brooklyn and seven in Queens. One or two strategically located offices in each borough could handle most of this work, with a smaller total staff.

But someone has to be responsible for overseeing the principals and the schools. Right now it is the district superintendents that fulfill that role. But since some districts have little more than a dozen schools, and one district actually has more than 50, the level of supervision varies widely. Under a revised structure, superintendents would ideally supervise perhaps a half dozen schools, the size of a typical suburban district. They ought to be a constant presence in the school buildings and get to know not just every principal, but the rest of the staff, parents, and children.

But wouldn’t this mean hiring an army of superintendents? They are already there. In addition to the current superintendents, each district has two or three deputies, a number of assistant superintendents, and other high-paid administrators. Redeploy the lot of them to supervise these small clusters of schools. Each new superintendent will have just one administrative assistant and work out of a small office in one of the buildings he or she supervises. This will allow us to get rid of the armies of “coordinators” and support staff currently populating the district offices.

What about the school boards themselves? The role that they would ideally have in the context of the centralized mayor-controlled system is one of advocacy for local needs and concerns.The policy questions that should be left to the boards include things like zoning, local educational preferences, such as gifted and talented programs, homogeneous or heterogeneous class groupings, and preferences between competing curriculum theories. The low turnout in school board elections is often used as a justification to abolish them. But the current elections were set up to fail, held in May, at a time that no voting for any other office takes place. Boosting turnout would be a simple matter of holding the elections in November along with the general election and using a simpler ballot.

This brings us down to the all-important school level. Here it is the principal that must be empowered to steer the ship if we expect him to go down with it should it sink.

At the first legislative panel hearing yesterday, a consortium of fringe groups, led by the hard-left gang at Acorn, renewed a call for parental control of everything from hiring the principal to making up the school budget. This comes precisely at the time that nearly everyone, including the new chancellor, is coming to the realization that it is the principals who must have unfettered authority over their schools if you wish to hold them accountable for the results. The throwbacks from Acorn are marching backwards to the good old days of Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Yet New York City parents don’t seem to be all that interested in running the schools. Last year during the Edison privatization debate, fewer than 50% of the parents at the five failing schools involved even bothered to vote on the issue of whether the management of their child’s school should be privatized. This was despite an unprecedented effort on both sides to bring out their supporters. When Harold Levy mandated that report cards had to be personally picked up during scheduled parent-teacher conferences, tens of thousands of the report cards went unclaimed.

In many New York City schools, as few as 1% or 2% of parents actually participate in parents associations. Participation in the much-discussed School Leadership Teams is similarly marginal. If it wasn’t for a $300 per member annual stipend, many of the teams would instantly cease to exist.The average stay of a child in a school is only about three years. Real school improvement will only come from taking the long view.
Before buying into the discredited Acorn dogma, liberals in the legislature will need to take an honest look at what really passes for parental involvement in the majority of city schools. Contrary to the dominant philosophy that has shaped school governance for more than a generation, parents are not the only stakeholders in the public schools. The reputation of neighborhoods and value of property is largely defined by the quality of schools.

The kind of model of school governance we need to emulate is the boards of trustees of private and charter schools, which often include participation from alumni, parents, faculty, and distinguished persons who lend their prestige to the institution. These groups would interface with the elected school board. This type of model could easily morph into a strategy to convert many public schools into charter schools (an area that the legislature needs to revisit and streamline).This new configuration would recognize each school as a unique institution, the first step in possible conversion to charter status.

Under this overall structure, we ensure that all constituencies are heard, including the community at large, through a democratically elected school board. And, for the first time in a generation, the accountability we increasingly demand of principals will begin to be matched with the actual authority they need in order to get the results we all seek.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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