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6th June

First Published in The New York Sun, June 6, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

The issue of mayoral control of the schools is due to end at midnight on June 30, 2009. If the state legislature and governor fail to act, the current Department of Education will disappear and revert into the old Board of Education at 12:01 a.m. the following day.

This is unlikely to happen, but what is likely is that there will be changes in the law that will rein in some of the mayor’s powers over the schools. In getting to an improved governing structure for the schools, there is likely to be much debate. Both an honest debate and some real reform would be a good thing.

Take the case of Ron Beller. If you have heard of Mr. Beller, it is likely to be in the context of his career as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. Mr. Beller left that post with a hefty payout, making him a multi-millionaire in his thirties. This apparently was all the expertise needed to convince the mayor and Chancellor Klein that Mr. Beller was the man to lead the reorganization of the public schools in the period after the mayor was granted control.

Mr. Beller’s name only appears in a handful of articles on the New York schools, usually in passing. That is because he never was put on any public payroll, nor was he vetted before any government body. To this day, his role is cloaked in mystery. What is known is that he is regarded as the architect of the now abandoned initial restructuring under which the Department operated until just this school year. Sources familiar with the school system insist that Mr. Beller’s power at the Tweed Courthouse was second only to that of Chancellor Klein himself.

But because his operation was privately funded, he was exempt from the usual scrutiny. Mr. Beller left, I’m told, disgusted that the chancellor was “too cozy” with the teacher’s union, a complaint that may come as a surprise to Randi Weingarten.

Mr. Beller and his wife Jennifer Moses (also a former Goldman Sachs investment banker) decamped to London. Unfortunately, they have not been as successful at avoiding publicity across the pond as they were here.

Their personal assistant, Joyti De-Laurey, was convicted of embezzling more than $8 million from the accounts of Mr. Beller, Ms. Moses, and a third former Goldman employee, Scott Mead. Mr. and Mrs. Beller never noticed that the millions had been taken.

More ominously, earlier this year the hedge fund Mr. Beller operated, Peloton Partners, was dissolved by his bankers, resulting in the loss of some $17 billion to the investors. This is a lot of money, a larger amount even than the total annual budget of the Department of Education during the time Mr. Beller patrolled the hallways at Tweed. No criminality has been alleged, but the business acumen that made him the choice to lead the effort to fix Gotham’s schools seems not to have weathered the test of time.

As a result of this financial disaster, Ms. Moses was forced to resign from her high-profile government post advising Prime Minister Brown. And what was Ms. Moses’s assignment? Coming up with a plan to fix Britain’s troubled school system.

Which brings us back to New York and the upcoming debate over the future of mayoral control. Two commissions, one appointed by the City Council and the other by the public advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, at the request of key legislative leaders in Albany, are studying the issue and will shortly issue recommendations. The Gotbaum commission is generating more interest, since Speaker Quinn clings to her dream of becoming mayor with the blessing of the incumbent and few expect the Council’s panel to propose changes.

The public interest here is creating a system designed to minimize damage to our school system and our children even if the worst possible person somehow sneaks into the mayor’s chair. That kind of protection comes from complete transparency and a system of checks and balances that allows for the mayor to do his job while protecting the public from abuse.

When the legislature gave control of the schools to the mayor, it assigned broad and unchecked powers. This was done envisioning Mr. Bloomberg at the helm, a reflection of trust in his ability and integrity. Despite this, abuses have occurred. Secretly empowering an arguably unqualified businessman to take such a key role in this public enterprise would seem to constitute such an abuse.

Some functions of the Department of Education have been assigned to private entities. Few disapprove of hiring outside companies that can do certain assignments more efficiently, but when government creates these entities to skirt the protections to the public built into government - things such as freedom of information, open competitive bidding, and requirements for public hearings - warning bells should ring.

This is certainly as issue for the Council, the Gotbaum Commission, and ultimately the Legislature to consider.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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