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After Two Years of Unraveling Red Tape, Couple Donate a School to New York City

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By Jonathan Weisman

After two years of disappointments and delays, a wealthy New York City couple appear to be on the verge of winning approval to give the city a new school.

The New York City Board of Education held a public meeting last month to laud Joseph and Carol Reich for their dogged efforts to establish a new elementary school in Brooklyn's poor and working-class Williamsburg neighborhood.

And it set a vote on the couple's proposal for later this month.

"It was their decision to go public on this," Mr. Reich said last week. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I think they wouldn't have done that if they didn't want this good thing to happen."

Last month's enthusiasm by the board was in marked contrast to what the Reichs describe as two years of bureaucratic apathy.

The would-be philanthropists dreamed up the idea of a new, locally managed school in/989 after adopting two 6th-grade classes through the local '@ Have a Dream" Foundation.

The couple had promised academic achievers a college education, but quickly realized that many students were so far behind that such a promise meant little.

"If we were going to have some effect on their lives," said Mr. Reich, an investment banker, "we were going to have to get to them before 6th grade."

The couple approached Pfizer Inc. the pharmaceuticals giant and the largest employer in the area for support, and walked away with a building the firm was abandoning.

Pfizer is expected to lease the building to the school board for $1 a year and contribute an estimated $500,000 for asbestos removal and renovation, said Donald Jacob, Pfizer's director of state government and civic affairs.

For their part, the Reichs pledged to raise another $500,000, much of it their own money.

A Question of Governance

At that point, the Reichs felt they had momentum, but then they ran into the city's school system.

Discussions with School District 14 one of the city's 32 decentralized districts--went nowhere. Mr. Reich contends that the district's superintendent, William Rogers, wanted to maintain control over all the schools in his district and had no patience for their proposed governance structure, under which a board of parents, community members, business leaders, and educators would run the school.

Mr. Rogers holds that, at the time of their discussions, the Reichs had no governance plan.

"The issue could never be resolved because it was never clear who would have the ultimate authority," he said.

The couple then went to the central board of education, hoping that the newly arrived chancellor, Joseph A. Fernandez, would embrace the proposal as the kind of site-based management and public-private partnership he championed as superintendent of schools in Dade County, Fla., his previous position.

But what Mr. Reich said they found was a school system mired in budget battles, with concerns far more pressing than their proposal.

Administrators raised questions about the number of windows per room and the height of the urinals, he said, but it was "more lethargy than opposition" that was dashing their philanthropic desires.

Mr. Fernandez "sort of said grace over it, then we got mired down in a lot of red tape," Mr. Reich recalled. But for the past several months, the system's attitude has been far more cooperative, Mr. Reich said, so much so that an opening date for the school has been set for September 1992.

At that time, the school as planned will have a kindergarten and first grade class. The 2nd through 6th grades will be added one year at a time.

To resolve the governance question, Mr. Fernandez has declared the school a satellite of nearby Eastern District High School, and, therefore, like all secondary schools in the city, under his control.

Mr. Jacob said Pfizer would hurry through final approval of its end of the bargain, and Mr. Reich expressed confidence that the gift horse would no longer be looked in the mouth.

"I think what we've all learned from this is that the private sector and the public sector work differently," he said.

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