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Wanted: Tough Visionary To Lead Nation's Largest District

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The seven-member panel expected to be named late last week to assist the New York City Board of Education's search for a new chancellor will face a difficult mandate: recruiting a visionary leader who can correct the failures of the country's largest school system and shape it into "a model for the nation."

Observers agree that the announcement last month by Nathan Quinones that he would retire from the chancellorship by Jan. 1 offers the board a fresh opportunity to address the district's numerous and persistent problems.

"But if people are looking for a panacea and aren't willing to build the structures needed to support real improvements," cautioned Stanley Litow, executive director of the Education Priorities Panel, a local coalition of advocacy groups, then a change in leadership "probably won't be successful."

Key city leaders appear to concur that drastic changes must be made in the administration of the 936,000-student system, whose shortcomings have been the target of scathing criticism in recent months.

A blue-ribbon mayoral commission, for example, cited the system's failure to educate a "shockingly large proportion" of its students. School officials also drew fire when openings in summer-jobs programs for students went unfilled. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1987.)

Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the board of education and a close4political ally of Mayor Edward I. Koch, has long urged that the system "move aggressively" to reform the management structure and bureaucratic procedures that "for decades have made it difficult for the system to address the needs of many of its students."

Mr. Wagner has said he will ask the search committee to accept the additional task of recommending ways to streamline the system's management structure.

Quinones Faulted

Critics had questioned whether Mr. Quinones, who has worked as an administrator in the city schools for most of his 30-year career, possessed the political skills to satisfy the system's numerous constituencies and at the same time move a cumbersome bureaucracy to effect significant improvements in student achievement.

"In face of increasing evidence that ever-larger numbers of students were not being educated appropriately, it became obvious that the system needed substantial reform, and the chancellor was not doing that,'' charged Norma Rollins, executive director of Advocates for Children Inc., a prominent watchdog group.

Despite the district's troubles, Mr. Quinones is widely credited with restoring stability and credibility in the wake of the city's fiscal crisis and alleged improprieties by the previous schools chief, Anthony J. Alvarado. In addition, even some of the chancellor's most vocal critics acknowledge that his vigorous imple8mentation of state programs raising minimum standards for schools helped expose the deep-rooted nature of the problems the system faces.

In announcing Aug. 13 that he would step down six months before the end of his current contract, Mr. Quinones said he had decided more than a year ago to leave the post he has held since 1984. But he hinted that his announcement had been precipitated by rising dissatisfaction with his performance.

Noting that in a statement that he had intended to disclose his retirement plans "early in the new school year," Mr. Quinones added that "I have determined that it would be more appropriate to make that announcement now."

One of the major actions the chancellor took shortly before his announcement was the dismissal of Frank Smith, the head of the high-schools division, which was responsible for oversight of the failed summer-jobs effort.

Ironically, Mr. Smith--an education professor who was the first person in recent memory drawn from outside the school bureaucracy to head the high-schools division--had been widely praised for his reform recommendations. He had proposed, for example, a radical restructuring of the high-school admissions process, with the aim of allowing disadvantaged students greater access to the city's better schools.

Longstanding Problems

Whoever succeeds Mr. Quinones will face a variety of longstandingel10lproblems that have recently moved back into the spotlight. Among the developments:

Promises of major funding from the state legislature and the Municipal Assistance Corporation to improve the deteriorating condition of many of the school system's facilities have been accompanied by calls for significant reforms in the way the city's schools are designed and built.

Felix Rohatyn, chairman of the mac, has said that release of the $600 million that the state corporation has committed to a school rebuilding program is contingent on a "rejuvenation of the leadership" of the schools.

A report by two nonprofit advocacy groups and the Education Law Project of Columbia University's law school has charged that the city's 10-year-old high-school-integration policy would be found unconstitutional if challenged in court.

The report concluded that the board's policy of reserving 50 percent of the spaces in certain "integrated" high schools for white students "is not defensible" in a system whose minority enrollment exceeds 75 percent.

Although some school officials, including Mr. Smith, have reached similar conclusions in recent years, observers say that increased pressure from civil-rights groups may force the system's leaders to come up with a way of amending the policy without further alienating the dwindling numbers of white parents who choose to send their children to public schools in the city.

A report released this summer by the state comptroller's office charged that the unusual authority vested in school custodians to hire their own workers had led to nepotism and held the potential to shield many other abuses.

The report's scheduled release was delayed for a week, reportedly as a sign of respect for Daniel F. Conlin, president of the school custodians' union, who was found shot to death in his car near his home. Although police have termed the shooting a "gangland-style slaying," they have established no firm link between the killing and Mr. Conlin's role as a school labor leader.

Deep Divisions

The advisory panel appointed by Mr. Wagner will have the formidable task of forming a consensus among segments of the city that have often been deeply divided during previous searches for a chancellor.

Already the New York Alliance of Black Educators has announced it will lobby for the appointment of Adelaide L. Sanford, a black administrator who is currently a member of the state board of regents. And corporate leaders have said they want a chancellor who can forge a lasting partnership between the city's businesses and its schools.

The search is expected to put a temporary hold on any new initiatives in the district, although Mr. Wagner has indicated that he would like to see many of the programs started under Mr. Quinones continued by the new chancellor.

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