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12th April
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, April 12, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

That the Reverend Alford Sharpton would not endorse the candidacy of Fernando Ferrer in this year’s mayoral election has been the conventional wisdom for some time now. There are a thousand byzantine twists and turns here, not the least of which is the failed professional relationship between the city’s two leading practitioners of the politics of victimization based on race: Mr. Ferrer’s campaign chief, Roberto Ramirez, and Rev. Sharpton himself.

Mr. Ramirez initially ran Rev. Sharpton’s effort to become the Democratic nominee for president,only to disappear from that role midcampaign. Surely, dollar signs were dancing in Mr. Ramirez’s head when he took on the post.
But most of the real dollars were dancing into luxury suites and firstclass airfares for Rev. Sharpton, even as the “real” candidates were spending their funds on real campaigns, even if it meant spending their nights at the local Motel 6 along the campaign trail.

Rev. Sharpton’s group, the National Action Network, held a confab last week to which all of the Democratic mayoral hopefuls were summoned, and which all dutifully attended. That, according to various published reports, they faced a gathering of only 65 to 75 people — a remarkably small crowd — reflects the enormous personal influence that Rev. Sharpton holds over the Democratic Party.

Mr. Ferrer probably wishes he had stayed home. He was subjected to what was reported to be a relentless barrage of abuse over his remarks regarding the Diallo case, apparently encouraged by Rev. Sharpton, who
could have easily limited the damage with a few conciliatory words, but instead chose to participate in the flaying of his former ally.

The Diallo flip-flop flap has given Rev. Sharpton a public excuse to back away from Mr. Ferrer. But it almost certainly isn’t the real reason for the tension between the two.

For Mr. Ferrer, the damage will continue to escalate, as demonstrated by the bashing he took last week at a mayoral forum at New York University that was organized by various gay rights groups.

The perception that Mr. Ferrer lacks core values and easily changes his stances for reasons of political expediency opened the door and gave credence to charges that his 1986 City Council vote on amendments to the city’s gay rights bill was yet another example of a lack of a consistent moral compass. That is the issue that won’t go away.

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The departure of Robert Knowling as the chief executive officer of the “Leadership Academy,” the quasi-private group charged with training new principals for the city’s schools, may well signal a new flexibility on the part of Mayor Bloomberg over his school reforms. This would be a welcome development.

It cannot be lost on the mayor’s campaign team that Mr. Bloomberg is consistently given low marks in public opinion polls for his stewardship of the schools.While not a key issue,the Leadership academy had already emerged as a potential miniscandal.

The mayor’s opponents, particularly Rep. Anthony Weiner, have begun to home in on the Academy, which is privately funded but controlled by the schools chancellor. In a public dust-up last month,Mr.Weiner charged that the cost of training each new principal by the organization exceeded $300,000, an assertion denied by Chancellor Joel Klein.

“The administration treats this program as if they’re using play money, without accountability, and contemptuous of the idea that it may be heading in the wrong direction,” Mr. Weiner stated yesterday.

The departing Mr. Knowling is a former telecommunications executive known for his motivational spiels to his employees. Ostensibly, he will return to the private sector.

Before being recruited to train the city’s principals, Mr. Knowling was the CEO of Covad, a post he was ousted from after the company went into bankruptcy and saw its stock plummet on his watch from $63 to $3.

Mr. Knowling, now the subject of a lawsuit by disgruntled Covad shareholders, was given a salary of $250,000 a year. This is more than any city employee — except for Mr. Klein — who earns the same amount.
Critics charge that Mr.Knowling,who had no background in education, was overpaid, and that he used his position to secure jobs and consulting contracts for his friends and former associates in the telecommunications industry.

Also noted was that Mr. Knowling never moved to New York from his home at Denver.

Beyond the controversy swirling about Mr. Knowling, the programs of the Leadership Academy have come under fire. A highly publicized campaign to lure school leaders from outside of New York has fallen flat, and it has been charged that a disproportionate number of the first class of new principals were assigned to cushy posts heading new small schools, where they need only supervise 100 or so students.

Others have already been removed from their assignments.A leader of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents the principals, confides that the Leadership Academy grads are “not ready for prime time.”

Because the Leadership Academy is financed through private donations, it is not subject to audit by the state or city comptrollers’ offices.

But even without Mr. Knowling, the controversy over the Leadership Academy is almost sure to continue. Sandra Stein, the academy’s academic dean, will now assume Mr. Knowling’s CEO post — and his quarter-million-dollar salary. One observer of the educational scene compared this succession unfavorably to last year’s departure of disgraced Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam.

This frequent critic of the Bloomberg administration noted that Carmen Fariña, who replaced Ms. Lam, who also earned $250,000, makes just $168,700, “despite a lifetime of experience in education as a teacher, principal, and administrator.”

Ms. Stein, on the other hand, has no direct experience in K-12 public education, and was an associate professor of public policy at Baruch College prior to being named dean at the Leadership Academy.
Mr. Weiner was particularly contemptuous: “When you consider that the program was touted as a way to recruit 40 new principals but has hired only one, the Leadership Academy doesn’t need a new director. It has to be scrapped altogether.”

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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