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Panel Takes N.Y. Regents, Schools Chief to Task

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Albany, N.Y.

A Senate committee hearing here last week on the New York State Board of Regents saw a barrage of questions about the board's effectiveness and a demand that the state commissioner of education resign.

In an ornate Senate room in the Capitol, witnesses recalled the long and illustrious history of the board of regents, which was created in 1784 and has included such eminent members as Alexander Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt.

But critics of the current board said they feared it was losing its clout and focus, thereby jeopardizing the education of students from prekindergarten through college.

While the board has been the target of scattered criticism in the past few years, last week's session marked the first formal step toward a possible legislative effort to modify or curtail its role substantially.

Already this year, the legislature reduced the regents' term of office from seven to five years.

The regents' breadth of responsibility is unmatched. Alone among state boards of education, the regents control precollegiate and collegiate education, libraries, museums, archives, public broadcasting, services to people with disabilities, and the licensing and discipline of all the professions except physician.

Prime Target

In the finely appointed hearing room, with its brass chandeliers, elaborately carved wood doors, and marble fireplace, the regents were variously described as arrogant, unaccountable, and unfocused.

Some of those present cited the absence of the board's chancellor, vice chancellor, and committee chairmen as evidence of the regents' indifference. Four of the 16 regents attended the hearing.

But it was Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol who turned out to be a prime target of the unusual hearing, which had been billed as an examination of the board's roles and responsibilities.

Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, the chairman of the Senate higher-education committee, expressed annoyance with Mr. Sobol in the course of the hearing and, during a break in the proceedings, called for his resignation.

"My patience has run out,'' Senator LaValle, a Long Island Republican, told reporters. "I can't sit idly by and watch an education system destroyed because a department can't get its act together.''

Mr. Sobol indicated that he had no intention of resigning.

Under direct questioning from Mr. LaValle, the commissioner said he would step down if his leadership undermined the regents.

But when Mr. LaValle asked if he had endangered the body, Mr. Sobol declared, "No, sir, absolutely not.''

Regent Carl T. Hayden supported Mr. Sobol. "We have a very good man at the helm,'' Mr. Hayden said.

Regents Ignored?

Mr. LaValle and Sen. Charles D. Cook, the chairman of the Senate panel on elementary and secondary education, called the hearing.

Mr. LaValle said a catalyst for the current undertaking was his sponsorship of legislation on professional disciplines, which had been recommended by the regents. Not only did the legislature ignore the regents' advice, he said, it also stripped the board of its oversight of physicians.

"The legislature was thumbing its nose at the board of regents,'' he observed. "That became a very telling point that there was trouble with the board.''

The regents have also run afoul of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who has established a task force to investigate the state school system and reportedly has called for the abolition of the board.

Some of the most critical testimony came from one of the regents himself.

J. Edward Meyer, a regent for 16 years, said the board suffered from diminished capacity. "We lack accountability, both to the legislature and to our constituencies,'' he said.

Mr. Meyer contended that the regents spend too much time in private sessions and violate the state's open-meetings law.

He also questioned the wisdom of some recent appointees to the board, whom he described as community representatives and professional educators.

The Democratic-majority Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate appoint the regents in joint session. Because the Assembly is a considerably larger body, that procedure dilutes the Senate's--and the G.O.P.'s--influence over the appointments.

Mr. Meyer also faulted the New Compact for Learning, the regents' blueprint for school reform, as an "amorphous concept'' that has "brought mass confusion.''

That characterization brought a sharp retort from Mr. Sobol. "The new compact is not amorphous,'' he said. "Now there are many, many specific actions that give shape and teeth to the [compact].''

Other presenters maintained that the board's priorities were unfocused.

"Where were the department and the board of regents during the New York City asbestos crisis?'' asked Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

"The regents spent months debating the issue of condom distribution in the city, yet they claim they have no authority with regard to the handling of the asbestos problem,'' said Mr. Grumet, referring to the emergency cleanup that delayed the opening of school this fall.

'A Popular Pastime'

Other educators, however, defended the board and the education department. "I think the major focus is right on the mark,'' said James J. O'Connell, the executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

"Over time the regents have served New York State with distinction, and so have our commissioners,'' Mr. O'Connell added.

Commissioner Sobol, meanwhile, portrayed the attacks as "regents bashing.''

The criticism "has become a popular Albany pastime,'' he charged. "It comes sporadically from the highest levels of state government; it comes regularly from some Albany lobbyists; some of the press delight in it, indeed, they batten upon it.''

"The effects are to undercut the public's faith in the constructive agenda we are pursuing and to undermine the public's confidence in the institutions of government generally,'' the commissioner warned.

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