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19th May
2006

First Published in The New York Sun, May 19, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

On Tuesday, voters throughout New York State went to the polls to approve — or reject — local school budgets and elect the school boards that submit these budgets.Only New York City and the city of Yonkers have been deemed by the legislature as unworthy of this privilege.

This kind of democracy involves all citizens in the discussion of education, whether they have children in the public schools or not. Parents obviously have a stake,as do those who may work in the system.The truth is that everyone has a stake in education. Voters must balance the impact on their wallets with the benefits the schools bring to their area. This can be the larger societal benefit of a well-educated population or the narrower benefit of rising property values. This year about 90% of the state’s school budgets were approved, an increase over recent years.
The significance of this balloting is why the previous experiment with school board elections here in New York City failed. These elections, like the others in the state, were scheduled for May, but every three years instead of annually. There was neither budget nor tax implications to be considered. A Byzantine proportional representation scheme was little understood. No wonder few bothered to vote, leading to the successful call for the abolition of the boards.

Low turnout once left the field to a small group with an interest in political patronage.This was the driving force in these elections until a reform passed in a special session of the legislature at the end of 1996, at the urging of the most effective chancellor we have had since the 1969 decentralization law, Rudolph Crew.
Despite what has been suggested by Mayor Bloomberg, by the time he took office in 2002, these local boards were no longer hotbeds of political influence. Their hiring powers ended in the spring of 1997, except for the power they had to choose a local superintendent. Even filling that post needed the approval of the chancellor, and in several instances Mr. Crew either rejected the choice of the local board or summarily removed a sitting superintendent.

Have things really changed for the better now that the elected boards are history? In 1999, Mr. Crew fired Askia Davis as superintendent of District 5, where he ran 17 schools with a total of 13,000 students. Mr. Davis has had a long line of central office jobs both before and after his removal. His political “rabbi” is said to be Dennis Walcott, once a member of the old Board of Education, now deputy mayor under Mr. Bloomberg.
When Mr. Davis was given the pink slip it was charged that his lack of instructional experience — he has never been a principal and taught for little more than two years — was the reason. Earlier this year, Mr. Davis was named the deputy regional superintendent of Region One, the city’s worst performing, where he has day-to-day supervisory experience over some 139 schools and over 120,000 students.

I recently attended a meeting of one of the 32 “Community Education Councils,” set up to replace the elected boards.The CEC’s are powerless, their members selected by a handful of parent association leaders (some have been elected with as few as two votes), and their meetings sparsely attended. Contrast this with the hundreds that used to regularly show up to school board meetings in District 10 where I live.

Similarly, the citywide Panel for Educational Policy also usually plays to an empty house at their monthly meetings.This week there was a presentation of the chancellor’s latest proposal to restructure the previous restructuring, billed as the most important such effort in the nation.There certainly was no debate, hardly any discussion, and few reporters thought that the proceedings were worthy of their time.Say what you will about the old Board of Education, its monthly sessions were usually very well attended, and even televised. Most importantly, every contract or lease that exceeded $100,000 had to be voted on in public, a measure of transparency for an agency that now awards hundreds of millions in no-bid contracts.

Pupils on Manhattan’s West Side are being denied access to gifted and talented classes as a result of the Education Department’s new admission policies.Their parents desperately need a forum to air their grievances, and a methodology to correct the wrong that is being done to their children.That they must throw themselves either on the mercy of the courts or hope to gain the sympathetic ear somewhere, rather than be able to work through the system, is a disgrace.

Revived School Board elections may be the answer. Reestablishing these elections and empowering new boards to share responsibility with the mayor on local concerns would give voters much more influence and the system much more accountability than the total mayoral control model that was established in 2002.With the mayor termlimited, there is now no real opportunity for voters to express approval or disapproval of his work, other than, as Mr. Bloomberg suggests, booing him at parades.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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