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12th March
2007

First Published in The New York Sun, March 12, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

Tomorrow afternoon, the members of the Legislature will gather in joint session to make four critical appointments to one of the state’s most important panels, the Board of Regents. The board controls virtually all aspects of education, including the appointment of the education commissioner.

The much-criticized concept of “three men in a room” — the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate majority leader — looks downright democratic next to the process by which our regents are chosen. This process can be called “one man in a room.” Even so, that one man, Speaker Sheldon Silver, is willing to let party hacks, or even lobbyists, recommend candidates to sit on this critical board.

The Assembly has 150 members, the Senate 62, and each legislator gets one vote. Because the Assembly is so overwhelmingly Democratic, the senators and Assembly Republicans might as well stay home. The Legislature basically allows the speaker to dictate the choices. Because the speaker needs the support of his conference, he gives influence over the choice to the political bosses within the machine.

In the case of the Bronx, this means that for the third time in the past decade, the choice will be made by Roberto Ramirez, who was once the Democratic county leader of the Bronx and is now an influential lobbyist. The Bronx is home to the greatest number of those schools that have been identified as the most troubled — schools so bad that they may need to be shut down.

Representing the interests of the children so profoundly at risk this past decade has been Ricardo Oquendo, whose qualification was that he was Mr. Ramirez’s law partner. He was replaced by Lorraine Cortes-Vasquez, who served as chief of staff in Mr. Ramirez’s office when he was an assemblyman. Neither is an educator. Other than Mr. Oquendo, who unsuccessfully voted to stop the restoration of standards to the senior colleges of the City University, both have been silent as the educational opportunities for the children of the Bronx diminished.

Now, Mr. Ramirez’s hand-picked candidate is another lawyer, Natalie Gomez-Velez. She was the first appointee of the president of the Bronx, Adolfo Carrion, a Ramirez ally and client, to the Panel for Educational Policy. Ms. Gomez-Velez barely questioned some of the worst decisions ever made on behalf of city schools. Her one moment in the sun came when she tried to thwart the one mayoral initiative I agree with, the ending of social promotion. She quietly resigned nearly three years ago and hasn’t been heard from in educational circles since.

Why is Mr. Ramirez still so deeply involved in selecting a regent from a borough in which he no longer lives? Perhaps it is the potential help that a regent can give his lobbying clients, including New Visions for Public Schools, an entity that has come under increasing criticism over the disappointing results of its small high school initiatives. Parents, community leaders, and some of the more independent elected officials, concerned over the choice of Ms. Gomez-Velez, solicited the entry of a more qualified candidate, Betty Rosa.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Ms. Rosa came to the Bronx at 10. She taught in the Bronx, earned a master’s and a doctorate in educational administration from Harvard University, served as a principal, and finally became superintendent of School District 8 in the east Bronx. She was imposed on a fractious school board by Chancellor Rudy Crew. When she left, once-feuding communities from Hunts Point to Throggs Neck were united in their passionate support for their tireless superintendent.

Ms. Rosa, with more than 30 years as an educator, aced the interview with the Assembly education and higher education committees. Ms. Gomez-Velez, I’m told, was less impressive. The word apparently spread, and it appeared Ms. Rosa may carry the delegation by three votes, which, by courtesy, would force the speaker to support her. Enter the lobbyist, Roberto Ramirez, putting the heat on Assemblyman Jose Rivera, nominally the Bronx County Democratic boss. Mr. Ramirez quickly demonstrates who is in charge. Mr. Rivera, along with his daughter, Assemblywoman Naomi Rivera, who represents an adjoining district, are flipped, giving the Regents seat to the less qualified candidate.

So this illustrates how tomorrow, Day 72 after Governor Spitzer promise to change everything, nothing will have changed. The lobbyist’s candidate, Natalie Gomez-Velez, will be named as Regent. The best interests of the most at-risk children in the state, those living in the Bronx, will once again be betrayed by the politicians.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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