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N.Y.C. Schools Should Manage Themselves, Report Urges

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A report by an adviser to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani calling for New York City's schools to manage themselves has intensified debate over the governance of the nation's largest school system.

Individual schools should become the "basic governance and decisionmaking unit'' in the system, urges the report, which was released last month. It was prepared by Edward N. Costikyan, a prominent Manhattan lawyer who has been an adviser to Mr. Giuliani on school reform and an advocate of decentralization.

Mr. Costikyan's recommendations for the system, which he calls "perhaps the worst governmental structure I have ever studied,'' are the fourth set of major proposals for overhauling its governance since 1991.

That year, a commission created by the state legislature and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo called for a series of governance reforms. None of the proposals were enacted, however.

Last year, the borough presidents of Manhattan and Queens issued a plan for fixing the troubled system. In addition, the United Federation of Teachers has proposed legislation to address problems in electing members of the 32 community school boards.

Unwieldy Arrangement

With the release of Mr. Costikyan's report, New Yorkers are once again pondering what to do about the school system, which was partially decentralized in 1969. The community school boards, created to give residents more control over their schools, run the elementary and junior high schools, while the central board of education runs the high schools and controls many administrative functions.

The arrangement has proved to be unwieldy, with bureaucratic backlogs at every turn and multiple layers of authority that are seen as stifling schools.

Despite wide agreement on the need for reform, however, changing the system is a complicated political calculation. So far, observers note, the city has not managed to muster the constituency for change that has powered fundamental shifts in other big-city districts.

With so many voices calling for reform, "eventually the status quo will yield, and there will be some change,'' observed Robert Berne, the dean of the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University.

"The final piece on this will be a public mobilization similar to what we had in the [district's 1993] asbestos crisis--for people to stand up and say, 'We won't take it any more,''' said Mr. Berne, who was the executive director of the 1991 state governance panel, known as the Marchi Commission.

Because of the political ramifications, much of the attention paid to Mr. Costikyan's report has centered around his call for abolition of the board of education. He proposes that a commissioner of education appointed by the Mayor administer pared-down central functions.

But the thrust of the plan is to give the city's 1,000-odd public schools as much control over their own destinies as possible. Such a radical change, the report notes, must be done cautiously.

'Ultimate Step'

"While I believe that school-level administration is probably the ultimate step,'' Mr. Costikyan writes, "it will be accomplished incrementally, and probably function by function, over a period of time.''

In its focus on schools, Mr. Costikyan's report echoes themes sounded by the Marchi Commission and the two borough presidents. While differing in the details, all of the governance recommendations have stressed the need to put schools' needs first.

To accomplish the transition, Mr. Costikyan calls for the establishment of five borough-level boards modeled after New York State's boards of cooperative educational services, or BOCES. The new boards would perform services needed by community districts but would have no direct authority over them.

The reform plan backed by the borough presidents of Manhattan and Queens also called for the creation of BOCES-type boards.

Mr. Costikyan's report notes that the 32 community school districts are the "logical recipients'' of the decentralization of many of the board of education's functions, including purchasing, school maintenance and repair, teacher training, checking teachers' credentials, some parts of collective bargaining, school meals, curricular standards, the operation of high schools, and special- and bilingual-education programs.

But Mr. Costikyan writes that the poor public image of the community boards--some of which have been plagued by corruption and mismanagement--makes it impossible to recommend an outright transfer of power.

He endorses a plan, put forth by the teachers' union and the two borough presidents, to change the method of electing community board members as a first step toward polishing their tarnished public image. The boards also would be stripped of power to hire employees other than the local superintendents.

But the change would require approval of the legislature, which let a bill sponsored by the union die in its most recent session. Lawmakers also would have to approve creation of the borough-level service boards, which could perform some of the functions in the meantime.

Mayor Urged To Act

Mr. Costikyan argues that Mr. Giuliani, through his four supporters on the seven-member board of education, can bring about significant change without the legislature.

The report calls on the city government to require the board to make its budget more understandable, so that city council members can know how the system is spending its $8.5 billion.

The report also urges the Mayor to press the board to contract out some services, such as payroll administration and leasing property, and to cease performing "unnecessary functions.'' These include the board's duplicative certification of teachers already licensed to teach in the state; fingerprinting, which the police department could do; and warehousing, an outmoded business practice.

One of the report's most controversial recommendations is to create a special, nongeographic district made up of schools that are ready to manage themselves. Mr. Costikyan says such schools should receive their own budgets and be free to choose teachers and other staff members and create their own curricula.

Mixed Reception

The plan's details have received a mixed reception, despite widespread agreement on the need for change.

Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines said in a statement that he saw "a lot of merit'' in Mr. Costikyan's proposals, adding that he had already begun "decentralizing, streamlining, and downsizing'' the central administration last fall.

"Giving decisionmaking authority to the people doing the work and cutting central overhead is the right way to go,'' Mr. Cortines said. But the chancellor cautioned that such decisions must be made for educational rather than political reasons.

While observers give Mr. Cortines high marks for his focus on educational standards, they do not see him as ardently interested in systemic issues, and thus doubt he will be a strong champion for reforms.

"I don't think he's very sophisticated about New York City governance issues,'' said Judith Baum, the director of information services for the Public Education Association, a local school-advocacy group. "His forte is being a good, practical pragmatist.''

To achieve real reform, observers caution, the Mayor, board of education, chancellor, unions, and legislature will have to work together. They ask why Mr. Giuliani has been so openly critical of Mr. Cortines, noting that the two leaders have feuded bitterly over the school budget and custodians' contract.

"The Mayor's rhetoric is not helpful,'' Mr. Berne said.

The teachers' union, which backs election reform to rid the community boards of corruption, praised Mr. Costikyan's call for school-based budgeting. But Sandra Feldman, the president of the U.F.T., said there are "very serious questions'' about creating a separate district for schools that opt out of the system.

The union also "firmly opposes'' creation of borough boards or mayoral control of the central school board, Ms. Feldman said in a statement.

While backing the report's call for moving to school-based governance, Mr. Berne said the idea of borough-level boards did not match the diagnosis of the problem.

"It was more towards what theMayor wanted to hear,'' Mr. Berne said, "as opposed to what analysis would lead you to believe.''

John Fager, a co-director of the Parents Coalition for Education and a strong supporter of school-based management, expressed similar sentiments. The borough-level boards would simply be "another level of bureaucracy,'' he complained, adding that he saw little real leadership to press for the governance changes.

'Crush' the Administration

Mr. Giuliani appeared at a press conference with Mr. Costikyan and the Mayor's two appointees to the board of education when the report was released.

Although the Mayor has not spoken in great detail publicly about the report, he vowed at the press conference to "crush the administrative structure'' of the board of education and get a handle on school spending through school-based budgeting.

Mr. Giuliani is also enthusiastic about creating a separate district of self-governing schools, said William Warren, a spokesman for the Mayor.

"He says by whatever means, that's fine, whether through separate borough boards or some sort of central board,'' Mr. Warren said. "The point is to get to that level where communities can manage their schools.''

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