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Political Skills Seen Key in Whoever Succeeds Sobol in N.Y.

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New York's constitution gives Gov. George E. Pataki no say in the appointment of the state commissioner of education. He is strongly influencing the upcoming appointment, however, as the state's education leaders are signaling that they will focus on finding someone who can work with him--and do battle with him when necessary.

The 16-member board of regents, the state's ruling education body, has launched a nationwide search to replace Commissioner Thomas Sobol, who is to leave office June 30. An appointment is expected by early fall.

The regents will need someone with good political skills to implement their broad school reforms, known as the "New Compact for Learning," said Carl T. Hayden, the chancellor of the regents.

Devised in the early 1990's, much of this blueprint for change--including increased school funding--still requires legislative approval.

"We have to be a good bit more successful in turning this plan into policy," Mr. Hayden said. "We recognize that to do that we need the help of the legislature and the Governor."

Regents' Fate an Issue

New York's new political climate was apparent last week as the legislature finished work on the state budget. Lawmakers increased state aid for schools by 2 percent, rejecting Mr. Pataki's proposed freeze.

But the legislature appeared ready to approve the Governor's plan to cut some 300 of the nearly 1,000 administrators in the state education agency who are paid with state funds.

When Mr. Sobol announced in February that he would resign his post, he cited irreconcilable differences with the administration of Mr. Pataki, a Republican who was elected last November. (See Education Week, 2/8/95.)

School lobbyists and association officials said last week that it was natural for the regents to be looking for someone who could go toe-to-toe with the Governor.

Mr. Sobol was an academic "visionary" who was a key architect in designing the "New Compact for Learning," said James J. O'Connell, the executive director of the New York Council of School Superintendents.

But observers say the outgoing commissioner was not interested in politics.

"Whenever you look for a new commissioner or a new c.e.o. or a new superintendent, you always want someone who can walk on water," Mr. O'Connell said. "And the best criteria for that always seems to be the weakness of the person last in that job."

Finding a state schools chief with political savvy may also be critical to the survival of the board of regents itself. In recent years, the board has been harshly criticized as ineffective and out of touch. (See Education Week, 4/27/94.)

Several state leaders--including former Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo--have sought to abolish the board, and Mr. Pataki has made its termination a high-profile part of his education agenda.

Legislation to accomplish that has yet to move, and Mr. Hayden said the regents' relationship with the Governor has improved.

Mr. Pataki may pursue abolishing the regents, Mr. Hayden said, "but I don't think he'll make it a high priority."

However, William Pape, the spokesman for the state school boards' association, said that with Mr. Pataki in office, the issue is not likely to go away.

"When you have a Governor on record calling for the abolishment of the regents," Mr. Pape said, "you better have somebody as commissioner who has good political sense."

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