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Choice for N.Y.C. School Chief Rejected By State Superintendent

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In a surprise decision late last month, New York State's chief education official refused to approve the selection of the deputy mayor of New York City to be chancellor of the city's public schools, even though the candidate had the backing of the mayor and the approval of the school board.

Gordon M. Ambach, the state's commissioner of education, turned down a request by the New York City Board of Education to waive formal requirements for Robert F. Wagner Jr., because he said Mr. Wagner "had no direct experience" in the schools.

Some groups said they were very pleased with the news. "We're overjoyed," said Paul Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"We protested [the Wagner nomination]," Mr. Salmon said. "We urged the school board to look carefully at the credentials of the deputy mayor." He added that Mr. Ambach had assured him that the "decision would be made on educational grounds only."

State of Confusion

The unexpected decision left the New York City Board of Education, whose members had voted 6-1 for Mr. Wagner, in an apparent state of confusion. The seven-member board met almost continuously last week, but as of midday Thursday, had still failed to decide on its next move--whether to select one of the other finalists for the post or to begin a new search. The board's president has said he will not appeal the decision to reject Mr. Wagner.

The post of chancellor of the New York school system, the largest in the country, has been vacant since March, when the former chancellor, Frank J. Macchiarola, left office. Early in the search for a new candidate, Mayor Edward Koch announced that he would back his deputy mayor, Mr. Wagner, for the post.

When the board selected Mr. Wagner over several minority-group candidates who work in the school system, community groups angrily denounced the decision and at least one group filed suit against the board. Few expected that the waiver request for Mr. Wagner from state officials might be the means of unseating him.

New York education law requires that candidates for a superintendent's post have three years of experience as a teacher or administrator in the public schools and 60 semester-hours of graduate study, at least 24 of which are in school administration and supervision.

The law permits the state commissioner to grant a waiver if he decides that a candidate offers "exceptional training and experience" that is the "substantial equivalent" of the formal requirements.

Mr. Wagner, 39 years old, has not had experience in the public schools and does not have the required 24 semester-hours of graduate study in the education field, according to Charles Mackey, an official in the state education department. He does have a master's degree, some college-level teaching experience, and extensive experience in management as deputy mayor, most recently as Mayor Koch's chief trouble-shooter.

Deficiencies in Graduate Education

But the state commissioner said in a 10-page statement that Mr. Wagner's background was not an adequate equivalent. "While there is a broad and undoubtedly accurate assertion that experience in his administrative posts equip him with ... budgetary and managerial skills, I cannot conclude that the accumulated experience in these positions overrides the deficiencies in graduate education, teaching, and education administrative experience," Mr. Ambach said.

School boards have applied for waivers four other times since 1971 when the waiver amendment was adopted, and two of those have been denied, Mr. Mackey said.

Mr. Macchiarola, the former New York City chancellor, was one who did receive a waiver. Mr. Macchiarola also lacked direct experience in the public schools and the required graduate work in education, but his extensive experience as both a teacher and administrator in higher education was considered an equivalent of the normal requirements, Mr. Mackey said. Mr. Macchiarola taught for 12 years at City University of New York and served as a senior administrator there and at Columbia University, he said.

The only other candidate who recieved a waiver for a superintendency lacked the required amount of graduate work but had an extensive and exceptional record as a teacher and administrator in the school system, Mr. Mackey said.

While the confusion over the chancellorship continued, New York's school district received some good news about next year's budget.

In a new proposal last week, Mayor Koch proposed an additional $150 million for the school board over the proposal he made in January. At that time, school officials announced that 1,000 teachers would have to be laid off because of reduced funds.

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