A Taste of Big Apple After Minneapple:Green Bites Into Field's 'Impossible'Job
New York City--When Richard R. Green moved here eight months ago to assume the leadership of the nation's largest school system, he brought with him a plaque that had rested on his desk in Minneapolis. It reads: "Notice to all employees: no task will be evaded merely because it is impossible."
The message is proving to be very appropriate as he learns the ropes in what some have called "the impossible job." He is attempting to exert control over a system whose bureaucratic intransigence is legendary--and matched only by the city's merciless political milieu.
Hailed as a potential savior for the trouble-plagued system when he arrived last March, the former Minneapolis chief in recent months has been the subject of a series of stinging media reports that cite a growing impatience with the pace of his reforms.
That impression is countered, however, by those whose support the new chancellor most needs for effective reforms, including board members, the teachers' union, the mayor, and business leaders.
They say he is moving as fast as can be expected of a person with no prior experience in New York City, who is faced with problems that have accumulated over several decades.
Mr. Green himself is also "very satisfied" with his accomplishments thus far. They include, he says, getting the school year off to one of the smoothest starts in recent years and beginning the dialogue about long-term reforms in the system.
In a wide-ranging interview last week, the chancellor discussed his experiences in making the transition from the "Minneapple", where he was a well-respected and relatively autonomous leader, to the "Big Apple," where heightened community expectations and his status as an unknown have complicated an already monumental task.
The complexity of this city's school system "requires a lot more to get your arms around it," he said. "I'm not so certain if anyone ever can or ever will."
Mr. Green assumed the chancellorship here at a time that many consider to be a critical juncture.
The district has largely recovered from the financial difficulties that forced massive cutbacks in the late 1970's, and the public seems unwilling to accept any further excuses for the failure of the system to adequately educate a large proportion of its students.
Mr. Green recognizes the enormity of the reponsibility he has assumed. "What is at stake," he said, "is the survival of a world-class city."
"We don't have time to work through all of the things that divide us," he added, "so we better put some of those things aside and assume we're involved in a very serious period."
But for many New Yorkers, the sense of urgency Mr. Green conveys in his rhetoric has not yet manifested itself in his actions.
In an editorial published at the beginning of the school year, for instance, The New York Times chided Mr. Green for failing to demonstrate in his first six months that he could be a strong leader. "He has yet to mount an effective campaign" to advance his agenda, the newspaper charged.
But James F. Regan, the longest sitting member of the board of education, voiced the sentiments of many of Mr. Green's supporters when he said that the chancellor "never promised us a rose garden in 100 days."
"He is not coming up with the glitzy solutions that would quiet the criticism," Mr. Regan said. "He does not rush in with quick solutions to complex problems."
"I try to be aware of what the people have been living through in New York City--from their point of view, not from mine--and I try to have some understanding of why there's the impatience," said Mr. Green.
"But I keep my eye on the prize, and that is to ultimately make the New York schools work for the 1 million children."
"Simply to rush in with instant solutions and something that's little more than cosmetic in terms of its lasting effects is not something I want to be remembered for," he added.
Instead, he said, he has taken "fair4ly measured steps" that include:
Transferring $32 million in resources--primarily people--out of the central board of education staff and into the schools and community districts.
Redrawing the organizational chart for the central administration, elevating instruction and development to the highest level and creating a new office for long-term planning.
Mandating drug-abuse-prevention programs in all 32 of the system's community districts and banning electronic paging devices in the schools.
Taking steps to improve school safety, including requiring that students who have been caught with weapons or have committed assaults be removed from their regular schools and placed in special programs, and authorizing a pilot program to test the effectiveness of hand-held metal detectors in five high schools.
Working to encourage parents, business leaders, and community members to become more involved in the schools.
The primary emphasis of Mr. Green's brief tenure, however, has been on rebuilding the morale of teachers and staff members, whose efforts, he said, will ultimately determine his effectiveness as chancellor.
From the moment he arrived, Mr. Green has been lauding teachers as "heroes and heroines" whose work has gone largely unrecognized in the blitzkrieg of criticism the system has withstood in recent years.
"The greatest chore that I've had since I've been in New York City is to validate and affirm that there are some people out there that are doing terrific jobs," he said.
"There are people here who come to work every day and have spent their entire careers trying to overcome problems," he said, "but the only thing that they've heard for the last four, five, or six years is that no matter what they've done, it doesn't make a difference."
A firm believer in the philosophy that says the classroom must be where meaningful improvements occur, Mr. Green said the system must be restructured to ensure that administrators in the central office and elsewhere understand that their chief duty is to support what goes on in the classroom.
"I'm sure I'm not the first chancellor to come in and say that," he acknowledged.
"We are trying to step out in every way that we possibly can to empower teachers, and in the process empower education in New York City."
This emphasis has won him praise from Sandra Feldman, president of the United Federation of Teachers, whose 90,000 members make it the largest union local in the nation.
"I'm very excited about the tone he is setting," she said. "What we've experienced in the past is that a chancellor comes in and starts dumping on the teachers."
"Now, the follow-through is equally important," she added. "I think teachers are more realistic than other people about understanding that change is very difficult, especially in a huge bureaucratic school system like this one."
"The bureaucracy tends to keep doing the same thing no matter8what anybody says, even the head of it," Ms. Feldman asserted.
Despite his strong support among many of the school system's power brokers, however, observers say that Mr. Green's fate will rest ultimately on whether or not he can act to quell the mounting level of discontent over his leadership abilities.
"I don't think he understood the degree to which everybody in New York was looking for an instant lift in the school system," said Stanley Litow, executive director of Interface, a research group that focuses on human-resource issues in the city.
"His approach to making long-term improvements is at variance with the desire of New Yorkers to see things happening instantly," Mr. Litow said.
Joanne Wasserman, the education reporter for the New York Daily News, said that Mr. Green's greatest weakness thus far has been that he does not have a "New York kind of style."
"New Yorkers are used to quick, symbolic gestures," she said. "The honeymoon is over. People are no longer patient."
Most observers agreed that the greatest current danger to Mr. Green's chancellorship is his rocky relations with the media, whose political power was aptly demonstrated after a wave of negative publicity led to the abrupt departure of his predecessor, Nathan Quinones.
Even in ordinary times, but especially now that education is at the top of everyone's political agenda, the chancellor's every action is played out in the glare of intensive media scrutiny.
"Perhaps the press hasn't been satisfied because he has chosen to work in a way that's not necessarily by press conference," said Ted Elsel20lberg, president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents principals and other supervisors here.
"If he had a different style with the press, things would certainly be a lot easier for him," acknowledged Carol Gibson, executive assistant to Mr. Green and his top political adviser.
"He is going to have to change," she said. "He's got to accept that the press has a real role here that they did not have in Minneapolis."
"What happens in New York is that there are so many different groups that are influential in a variety of ways that it will make it difficult for [Mr. Green] for people to have the attitude that he's not moving fast enough," said Ms. Feldman.
Several observers said that the bad press that the chancellor has received is a reflection of the disgruntlement of board employees and others who have lost status and power as a result of his actions, and of those who backed different chancellor candidates.
But a few said that the dissatisfaction extends up to some members of the board, who reportedly complain privately that the chancellor is not accessible enough to them.
Before Mr. Green assumed the post, the board of education and other power brokers promised him that he would be given a freer hand to run the school system than past chancellors have enjoyed.
"He was told when he came that everyone would be in his army," said Robert F. Wagner Jr. president of the board. "What he wasn't told is that he has an army of generals."
The complex nature of what Mr. Green calls the "creative tensions" in New York, and what others call the overtly political nature of the school system, is suggested by the observations of people who have arrived at exactly the opposite conclusion about the chancellor's relation4ship with the board.
"He's like a bus driver," said Philip Kaplan, president of the New York City School Boards Association, an organization for community-board members.
"He may have a map, but the board tells him where to drive," he said. "If he really ran things, I think he could turn the system around."
Mr. Green does not expect to slacken the pace of his daily 16-hour routine until June, when next year's budget process is completed.
In contrast to Minneapolis, where the school system was an independent taxing authority, New York's school budget must pass through the city council and the Mayor's office. And other city agencies also provide--and demand accountability for--the school system's resources.
Having to work for the first time with a city government that controls the purse strings, Mr. Green said, "changes the ball game forever.''
"New Yorkers are going to have to decide whether or not they will go to bat for him," said Ellen Sulzberger Strauss, president of Executive Service Strategies, a public-affairs consulting firm. Ms. Strauss also serves on the education committee of the New York Partnership, a business group that is working to improve the city's schools, and she donates one day a week to the school system.
"If he has to start playing the political game, getting down on everyone else's level, he would be lowered," she said. "Richard Green is not going to do that, he's going to do it his own way."
The chancellor said: "As soon as you start seeing parents celebrating their schools, I will know I have made my mark."
"I would hope," he added, "that I am being judged on that basis, not on 'did this person get that appointment, did that project get finished, or why don't we have lockers in the schools,' things of that sort."