Calls for Restructuring School Board in N.Y.C. Mount
Bitter divisions within the New York City Board of Education over AIDS education have given new impetus to outside forces calling for a major overhaul of the panel.
Mayor David N. Dinkins, who has called for fundamental changes in the structure of the board, was seconded last week by the board's former president, Robert F. Wagner Jr., who announced the formation of a citizens' committee to draft legislation providing for such changes.
The board has become polarized, Mr. Wagner charged, and its conduct is "an embarrassment.'' The board's structure must change if the city is to move ahead with school reform, he argued.
"What we have in New York City--probably unique among school boards in the United States--is six separate appointment authorities for a seven-member board,'' Mr. Wagner said. "What that means is no accountability.''
Other prominent figures in local politics have joined the call to change the process for selecting the board, which currently has five members appointed by the presidents of the city's five boroughs and two members picked by the mayor.
But few board members appeared to welcome or endorse the proposals for change. Critics have described the proposals as thinly disguised attempts to usurp the board's power based on exaggerated descriptions of conflict within the panel.
Any changes in the board's structure and selection process would have to be approved by the state legislature, which has defeated similar proposals in the past.
Ninfa Segarra, a board member representing the Bronx, last week warned that the board will find powerful allies in the legislature who will thwart any changes.
The drive to reconfigure the board received a substantial boost last month when the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers, the city's 110,000-member teachers' union, threw its support behind a governance change.
Union Support for Change
Sandra Feldman, the president of the U.F.T., said the union previously had not backed governance changes because of concern that the changes would do little to solve such problems as overcrowded classrooms or shortages of school supplies.
During the past year, Ms. Feldman said, she has watched "an unconscionable situation'' unfold. "Completely mired down'' in its debate over AIDS education, she said, the board has failed to address other problems plaguing the schools.
The debate has focused on an AIDS-education curriculum proposed by Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, which the board amended this summer to require the teaching of abstinence.
In a statement issued this summer, Mayor Dinkins accused the board of allowing "educational excellence and innovation [to take] a back seat to fingerpointing, micro-management, and far too many fits of pique.''
Mr. Dinkins said the situation has led him to reverse the stand he took when, as president of the borough of Manhattan during the late 1980's, he opposed efforts by Mayor Edward I. Koch to appoint most members of the school board.
Mayor Dinkins's position was supported by The New York Times and several other city newspapers, which have printed editorials calling for the board to be changed.
Support for change has also come from the financier Felix G. Rohatyn, who serves as the chairman of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, a company created to finance bonds for the city. Mr. Rohatyn has said he believes a school board made up mostly of mayoral appointees would make better use of $200 million in surplus bond revenues that he expects to have available next year.
Mr. Wagner said his committee of 25 to 30 educators, community activists, and business representatives would make recommendations to the legislature by late February.
Mr. Wagner, who recruited most of the committee's members and serves as its co-chairman, in the past has called for a school board dominated by mayoral appointees. He also has proposed that the mayor make his selections from a list of nominees approved by a representative screening panel.
Still, the history of past attempts to change the board illustrate the difficulties likely to face Mr. Wagner and his allies in the legislature.
Last year, a state commission on New York City school governance issued a sweeping list of recommendations that included a call for the board to be expanded to nine members, with four appointed by the mayor.
The recommendation was incorporated in a bill by the commission's head, Sen. John J. Marchi of Staten Island, but the measure became ensnared in a dispute between the Senate and Assembly.
Assemblyman Angelo Del Toro, a Manhattan Democrat who heads the Assembly's education committee, said he expected to take up the legislation again this year in light of the current controversy on the board.
But David Jaffe, the counsel to Mr. Marchi, said the senator himself did not support his commission's recommendations and has no desire to take up the issue again.
Mayor Dinkins last year put forward legislation expanding the number of board members to 11, with six appointed by his office. The measure died in committee, but an aide to Mr. Dinkins said the Mayor expects it to be reintroduced this year.
Board 'Packing' Alleged
H. Carl McCall, the school board's president and an ally of Mr. Dinkins, last week issued a statement saying he was "delighted'' that prominent citizens had come forward to examine school-governance issues.
Mr. McCall appeared alone among board members in his support for the effort, however.
Resistance to changes among other members appeared to transcend the differences that have resulted in a board divided between a so-called "gang of three'' and a "gang of four.''
Board members pointed out that the mayor already has significant powers over the budget and the district's collective bargaining with its employees. Mr. Dinkins should not be allowed to change the board, they said, based on his disagreements with some of its members.
Michael J. Petrides, a board member from Staten Island, said the board needs to remain independent so that city authorities "will be called to task in a public way'' when they fail to give the schools enough money.
Irene H. Impellizzeri, who represents Brooklyn, alleged in an interview last week that Mayor Dinkins is attempting to "pack the board'' and convert it "from an independent citizens' body to a political instrument.''
The "gang of four'' consists of Ms. Segarra of the Bronx, Carol A. Gresser of Queens, Ms. Impellizzeri of Brooklyn, and Mr. Petrides of Staten Island.
Mr. Petrides also serves as a campaign adviser to Rudolph W. Guilliani, Mr. Dinkins's Republican opponent in the 1989 mayoral election and a likely challenger next year.
The faction irked Mayor Dinkins and other board members with its June amendment to Mr. Fernandez's AIDS-education curriculum. The amendment required that abstinence be stressed by AIDS-education materials and that outside groups be contracted with to provide AIDS education. Members of the group also fought a district plan to distribute condoms to some students without parental consent.
Clashing with the faction has been the "gang of three,'' which consists of Luis O. Reyes of Manhattan and the two mayoral appointees: Mr. McCall and Westina L. Matthews.
Despite the continuing split, both sides asserted in interviews that their divisions simply show that they are fulfilling their role of deliberating over policies that impact children.
"New York is a very heterogeneous city in many ways,'' Ms. Segarra said. "It is not unusual that those particular subject areas would create a lot of discussion and differences.''
Both sides also denied that the board has been paralyzed by controversies. Members noted that the board has been conducting business as usual and passing numerous resolutions with solid support.