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Elections for Boards in New York City Draw Record-Low Fraction of Voters

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New York City's decentralized system of school governance, rocked in recent months by corruption scandals, received another blow last week when an apparent record-low percentage of eligible voters turned out to elect new members to 32 community school boards.

Although city election officials did not have complete information last week, they said the turnout seemed to be smaller than the previous low of 7.5 percent in 1986. Voter participation has declined steadily since 1970, when 14 percent of eligible voters cast ballots for the first community boards.

Due to the complexity of the voting and counting system used for the elections, city officials do not expect to begin tallying the results until May 12. An announcement of the victors may not come until the end of the month, they said.

But the disappointing turnout, combined with the recent rejection by the courts of the New York legislature's attempt to reform the beleaguered, 20-year-old system, cast new doubt on its fate, several prominent officials said.

"New Yorkers voted yesterday on the future of decentralization," Schools Chancellor Richard R. Green said last Wednesday. "Their silence does not bode well for the health of the system."

Supporters of the current system had hoped the election would breathe new life into the community boards, three of which had been suspended by the chancellor in the past two years.

Nearly two-thirds of the 32 community districts are under investigation by law-enforcement or school officials, although supporters are quick to point out that the nature and severity of the charges vary widely.

The low voter turnout is "very discouraging," particularly in light of the intensive efforts that were mounted to convince voters to participate, said Judith Baum, a school activist and chairman of the City Wide Community School Board Elections Committee.

"I'm at a loss to say why it was so light," she said, although she speculated that some voters had stayed home because of bad weather and others had been discouraged by the overturning of the reform law.

"The powers that be are calling [the election] a litmus test of decentralization," she added, "but people in other parts of the nation don't have their democratic rights taken away because they don't come out and vote."

Others suggested both that voters were turned off by talk that the elections are governed by machine politics, and that the recent scandals undermined voters' confidence in their ability to select quality candidates.

Even supporters of the decentralized governance system acknowledge that it contains provisions that were necessary political compromises when the measure passed in 1969, but that have not served the district or its students well.

Critics of the system have long charged that it fails to adequately demarcate the lines of authority and responsibility between the 32 elected community boards, which control the system's elementary and intermediate schools, and the appointed central board, which operates high schools and is responsible for setting policy for the entire system.

One of the thorniest issues raised under the decentralized system has been that of school facilities--a problem that has led to severe overcrowding in some community districts and underutilized buildings in others.

The community boards are powerless to levy taxes or fund construction costs, and have had to resort to leasing space and busing students to other districts.

The central board, on the other hand, has proven unable to keep up with the demand for new buildings, and last year saw its powers to do so stripped away by the legislature and granted to a new school-construction authority that is exempt from certain state labor laws and local review boards.

The nine members of each community board are responsible for hiring and evaluating a superintendent and school principals, for controlling the budget of their district, and for ensuring that programs conform to central board policy.

While test scores and other indicators of student success have climbed steadily under the direction of some community boards, many others have been plagued with the same levels of mediocre student performance that prompted the original movement for decentralization.

Cries for reform have escalated dramatically in recent months following the arrest last fall of a junior-high-school principal for alleged cocaine use. The arrest sparked an outpouring of allegations of corruption, patronage, and bribe-taking by community board members and school employees, which in turn prompted investigations by local district attorneys and the board's inspector general.

Thus far, a handful of board members and a former community superintendent have been indicted as a result of the investigations.

The scandals have also prompted the chancellor to suspend two of the community boards and replace them with trustees, and to suspend a superintendent in a third district pending the outcome of an investigation.

Last week's elections will lead to reinstatement for these boards, presumably with new members, as well as for a third board suspended for mismanagement by the previousel20lchancellor, Nathan Quinones.

But other developments suggest that the decentralized system will undergo significant changes before the next community board elections, scheduled for three years from now. Among the activities:

A state commission was authorized by the legislature last year to evaluate decentralization and make recommendations for needed reforms.

Not all of the panel's members have been named, so it has not yet begun its work. But observers say it could play a key role in resolving the differences of opinion among legislative leaders that have blocked previous reform efforts.

A separate city commission, established by Mayor Edward I. Koch earlier this year and granted full subpoena powers, is looking into allegations of corruption and improprieties across the system and is expected to recommend changes needed to address the problem.

The state commissioner of education, Thomas Sobol, has accelerated efforts to target the state department of education's resources at the New York City school system, which in the past has generally been allowed to run its own course despite the fact that it educates some 40 percent of the state's children.

The department is now taking some actions to assist the district that, "had they been done 20 years ago, would have obviated some of the current difficulties," Mr. Sobol said.

Comparing the state department's role with that of a rescue boat, the commissioner said: "When a ship founders and passengers are overboard, the first thing you do is throw them a rope. Then you figure out how to get the main vessel repaired and charted on a better course."

For now, he said, "we've thrown out the lifelines and are helping people get out the water. We're only in the talking stages about how to get them back on the ship and embarking on a new direction."

The system could also face major changes as a result of the court case that led to the overturning of the conflict-of-interest law passed by the legislature last year.

The decision to strike down the law, which barred board employees and other elected and party officials from serving on the community boards, is being appealed by city and state officials.

But a second part of the ruling, which upheld the constitutionality of the disparity in sizes between community districts, is also being appealed, according to Robert Muir Jr., the lawyer for the board candidates and others who filed the suit.

In addition, the state judge presiding in the case has ordered a trial on a third issue raised by the case, which charges that the current system of electing representatives has prevented minority candidates from winning election in some districts with predominantly minority student enrollments.

School reform is also likely to become a major issue in this year's mayoral race, observers said.

In the meantime, Chancellor Green has proposed his own set of recommendations for reforming the system. They include giving the chancellor a role in the selection of community superintendents, transferring the authority to select principals from the community boards to the superintendents, and making it easier to transfer principals out of their current buildings.

Supporters of the current system insist that it would work if parent candidates prevail in last week's election and if the central board redefines its role to provide more freedom and support for the community districts.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most drastic change being proposed would break the district into even smaller units, perhaps doubling the current number to 64.

Nearly all of the players in the debate, however, insist that they do not favor returning to a centralized governance system.

The New York City school system "is simply too large and too complex to run effectively from one central place," said Commissioner Sobol.

On the other hand, he said, "I don't think there will be a significant difference in voter apathy and turnout in the next election unless there is significant legislative change."

"No one thinks it's perfect the way it is, but everyone knows it couldn't work as one centralized operation," said Patricia Stryker, the district's chief lobbyist in Albany.

One of the major difficulties in getting reform legislation passed, she added, is that many players have a vested interest in maintaining the current system. Quoting a lawmaker, she said: "Everyone's going to get hurt a little bit in the final solution."

While most of the participants in the debate, including state lawmakers, have acknowledged the need for changes in the decentralized system, "they so far haven't been able to agree on a particular kind of reform," said Ms. Baum. "This is just dragging on forever while we keep chasing our tails."

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