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Flood of Governance Proposals Follows Battles Over Fernandez in New York City

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NEW YORK--Last month's decision by the board of education here not to renew the contract of its embattled chancellor, Joseph A. Fernandez, has led to an emerging consensus that the entire governance structure of the school system needs to be scrapped.

In the aftermath of the bitter battles between Mr. Fernandez and the city school board, many city and state officials now question whether anyone can run the New York City system as it now exists, and they have been offering a slew of proposals for profound governance changes.

"The current governance system is so flawed that no person could make the system operate,'' asserted Robert Berne, an associate dean of the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University who formerly served as the executive director of a state commission examining the system's governance.

Recommendations for change issued by Mr. Berne's commission last year failed to get through the state legislature, largely due to a lack of support from Republicans who controlled the Senate. The movement to bring about such changes was revived last fall, however, as the board and Mr. Fernandez bickered over various issues, and it seems to have been thrown into high gear by the chancellor's dismissal.

In the days since that decision, state legislators have offered more than a dozen bills to change the city school system's governance. Most of the city's five borough leaders and many think tanks have been offering suggestions as well.

Within weeks, additional proposals are expected to be aired by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Mayor David N. Dinkins, and an independent citizens' committee headed by Robert F. Wagner, a former school board president.

Many of the proposals thus far would grant the mayor more power over the city's school board. Others seek to divide the governance of the school system among the city's boroughs, or give the city's 32 local school boards far more control.

"We have got to find a way to disagree on some issues without getting the entire school system into gridlock,'' said Nelson C. Smith, the vice president for education and youth employment at the New York City Partnership, an organization of business and civic leaders concerned with improving schools.

Past Reforms Thwarted

The New York City school system is the nation's largest, with a $7.4 billion annual budget, nearly a million students, and some 120,000 employees in about 1,000 schools.

Under the terms of state legislation enacted in 1969, the 32 community school boards have primary jurisdiction over the city's elementary, middle, and junior high schools, while the central administration retains control over high schools and distributes to all schools the funds allocated to the district by the city.

The central administration is governed by a seven-member school board, with two members appointed by the mayor and five appointed by the elected presidents of their respective boroughs. The board members appoint a chancellor as their chief executive officer.

When the changes in the system's charter were enacted in 1969, legislators expressed hope that they would give local communities more power over their schools and make the central board of education more responsive to local needs.

In recent years, however, board members at times have been at odds with the borough presidents who appointed them and have been accused of being out of touch with the people they represent.

"We have a system that is not accountable,'' Lee Blake, an education adviser to Mayor Dinkins, complained in a recent interview.

Moreover, the controversy over Mr. Fernandez and his handling of such sensitive social issues as AIDS education left the board polarized. The chancellor largely retained the backing of Luis O. Reyes, the Manhattan borough representative, and the mayoral appointees, H. Carl McCall and Westina L. Matthews.

But his supporters were outnumbered and, in the end, outvoted by Michael J. Petrides of Staten Island, Ninfa V. Segarra of the Bronx, Irene Impellizeri of Brooklyn, and Carol A. Gresser of Queens. (See Education Week, Feb. 17, 1993.)

Whoever succeeds Mr. Fernandez, the city's sixth chancellor in a decade, when he leaves in June will inherit the controversies over the district's governance. In deciding during a private session this month that Frank J. Macchiarola, a former chancellor, would lead a seven-member superintendent-search panel, board members said that the process that picked Mr. Fernandez was controlled too much by what they see as a Manhattan elite and was not responsive to the concerns of the wider community.

Local Board Rebellion

A central problem in the district's governance is the balance of power between the chancellor, the board of education, and the 32 local boards.

Last fall, Mr. Fernandez suspended a school board in Queens for refusing to implement a multicultural curriculum that, among other goals, encourages tolerance of homosexuals. But the citywide board voted overwhelmingly to reinstate the local board after concluding that the chancellor had overstepped his authority.

Dennis Coleman, the president of the New York City School Boards Association, said recently that the current system leaves local boards with little control over funding, leading to shortfalls in basic school supplies.

With all 288 seats on the nine-member local boards up for grabs on May 4, the central issue in many races is the question of how much autonomy local boards should have, especially in curricular matters. (See related story, this page.)

'No Real Unanimity'

Whatever the wishes of local politicians, any change in how the city's schools are governed must come though state legislation, and will likely be the product of much additional maneuvering, several observers of state politics agree.

"I think there is a general agreement about one thing: The system needs to change,'' Mr. Berne of New York University said. "Beyond that, there is no real unanimity about how it should change.''

"What comes out of the political compromise,'' Mr. Berne cautioned, "is anybody's guess.''

Last year, the Temporary State Commission on New York City Governance, which Mr. Berne directed, issued a sweeping list of recommendations, including a call for the board to be expanded to nine members, with four appointed by the mayor.

Legislation to enact the recommendations was passed by the Assembly but then was rejected by the Senate, which balked at giving the mayor more power.

Jocelyn M. Dax, a coordinator for education legislation in the Assembly, said that the bill passed by that house last year will continue to be "the basis of negotiations.''

But Jerry McLaughlin, a spokesman for State Sen. John J. Marchi, who was the chairman of the temporary commission on governance, said the Senate continues to be hesitant about giving the city's mayor more appointments to the board.

If the legislature does pass a measure changing the district's governance, it likely will do so only after it resolves the current stalemate over the state budget, which threatens to drag well beyond the April 1 deadline for budget action, Mr. McLaughlin and other legislative experts said.

Mayoral Race On

The separate governance proposals being developed by Mayor Dinkins, Governor Cuomo, and Mr. Wagner's commission also are expected to call for the city's mayor to have more power over appointments to the school board, according to those involved in their development.

"Since we are the mayor's office, everybody sees us as having the lead or legislative authority [in school matters], when we don't,'' Ms. Blake said.

"It's very frustrating,'' she added. "We don't appoint the chancellor, and yet, when there are difficult educational decisions made by the board, we are flooded by phone calls by angry constituents.''

Observers also noted that legislators must weigh the fact that a mayoral race is on, and that the person making new appointments to the board may not be Mr. Dinkins, a Democrat, but his Republican challenger--likely to be Rudolph W. Guiliani, a former federal prosecutor.

Borough Boards?

Another suggestion that has gained widespread acceptance is a division of the district's governance among its five separate boroughs.

"I think this system is too big,'' Ms. Gresser, who represents Queens on the board of education, said in an interview after voting against renewing Mr. Fernandez's contract.

"It is very hard to articulate, for a city as diverse as this, one policy for five different boroughs,'' she said.

Ruth W. Messinger, the Manhattan Borough President, has proposed establishing borough boards as well as a policy council at each school. David C. Bloomfield, her general counsel and senior education adviser, said such a system would "drive dollars and educational imagination down to the school level.''

The proposal, aired this month, has won the backing of the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that promotes school choice.

A division of the city into borough boards also has been suggested by the Council of Supervisors and Administrators and was proposed in legislation submitted this month by Serphin R. Maltese, a state senator representing Queens.

Ms. Blake of the mayor's office, asserted, however, that such a system would make the city's school governance "chaotic'' and would do little to address school deficiencies.

Judith Baum, the director of the elections project of the Public Education Association, a nonprofit civic organization, noted that borough boards have existed in the past. Bringing them back, she said, might revive the "patronage and political decisionmaking'' that led them to be abolished in the first place.

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