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N.Y. City Ponders: Politics or an Impossible Job?

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With the resignation of Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines, New York City officials are questioning whether anyone can run their massive school system.

Mr. Cortines had appeared among the most popular and successful of the nine chancellors who have moved through the office in the past 25 years. Like his predecessors, however, he will leave office before serving the term set in his contract.

Mr. Cortines resigned last month in the face of repeated criticism from Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and he plans to step down by Oct. 15. (See Education Week, 6/21/95.)

As the search for a new chancellor begins, local leaders are asking whether it is the city's school-governance system that needs to be replaced.

The consensus is that "the New York City public school system is much too large to manage effectively as it is currently structured," according to Ayo Harrington, the president of a citywide federation of parent organizations called the United Parents Associations of New York City.

The system is the nation's largest school district, with more than a million students in about 1,060 schools. It employs about 110,000 people and has an annual budget of more than $8 billion. School-governance experts contend that few organiza~tion~al structures outside the U.S. armed services are as large.

"We ought to learn something from having nine chancellors--that it doesn't work," said Sy Fliegel, a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank.

Fighting the System

Mayor Giuliani has complained that he is being held fiscally accountable for a school system that he lacks the power to control, and he has called for state legislation to give him more say in how its money is spent.

Although he appoints two of the seven members of the central school board and must approve its budget, he says such powers are not enough.

"He is just trying to make sure the schools, and particularly his budget, are used for the education of children," said Ninfa Segarra, the city's deputy mayor for education and human services and a board member.

The proposal to increase the mayor's authority has the support of Gov. George E. Pataki of New York, Mr. Giuliani's fellow Republican. But it has been harshly criticized by some school board members, who oppose giving the mayor more power. It is also expected to meet resistance from the De~mocrats who dominate the state assembly.

Meanwhile, Edward F. Stancik, the special commissioner of investigation for the city's schools, and Sandra Feldman, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the local union, have renewed their joint call for legislation to overhaul the city's 32 community school boards.

Their proposal, which stalled in the state legislature last year, argues that the local boards, as structured, have stifled efforts to improve the schools by breeding corruption and political patronage.

"With chancellors coming and going, corrupt school boards are emboldened, confident that they can outlast the most ardent reformer," Mr. Stancik and Ms. Feldman wrote in a recent guest editorial published in The New York Times.

Clone Cortines?

Given the roadblocks such proposals tend to encounter in the legislature, most local officials acknowledge that the city, in the short run, must find a chancellor who can bring about reform within the existing structure.

Carol A. Gresser, the president of the city school board, said the board has just begun its search for a new chancellor and does not have any specific candidates in mind.

She said the board probably will seek to conduct the search itself, rather than set up a local search committee or hire a company to find candidates.

Mayor Giuliani has urged the board to consider nontraditional candidates with business backgrounds.

Many of the city officials and local education experts interviewed in recent weeks described Chancellor Cortines, who has served about 22 months, as the city's most effective schools chief. They said replacing him will be difficult, especially given New York's reputation for chewing up chancellors and spitting them out after just a couple of years.

"If I could, I would clone him," said Ms. Gresser, who noted that, under Mr. Cortines, the overall reading and mathematics scores of the city's public school students increased this spring for the first time in six years.

Ms. Segarra maintained, however, that Mr. Cortines had moved too slowly in cutting back the school bureaucracy and implementing other needed reforms.

"He seemed to be captured by the system," Ms. Segarra said last week. "We need someone to be much more aggressive in their reform agenda."

Ironically, Mr. Cortines and Mr. Giuliani were viewed as philosophically much closer than most of their predecessors had been. Both shared a common desire to shift far more of the control over schools and their budgets to the school sites.

Mr. Cortines and Mr. Giuliani also both sought to focus the system on academics and to steer it clear of the divisive social issues that had helped bring down Joseph A. Fernandez, Mr. Cortines's immediate predecessor. Mr. Fernandez was ousted in early 1993 by the same bloc of board members that brought in Mr. Cortines. (See Education Week, 2/17/93.)

New Problems

Mayor Giuliani, however, has often criticized Mr. Cortines, especially during discussions of the school budget, which the mayor recently cut by $254 million. Though the mayor has said he has no grudge against Mr. Cortines, he was often quoted subjecting the chancellor to personal attacks.

Sal F. Albanese, a Democratic city council member from Brooklyn, said last month that Mr. Cortines "has been bludgeoned by the mayor on a regular basis."

The last straw for Mr. Cortines appeared to be the mayor's decision to set up a special commission to investigate school crime and the adequacy of the school system's safety division.

Former Mayor Edward I. Koch said in a recent interview that Mr. Giuliani appeared to be "trying to embarrass the chancellor" by setting up the commission to respond to several highly publicized lapses in school security. City council and school board members have accused Mr. Giuliani of stacking the commission with friends and employees so it would reach a foregone conclusion: that oversight of school security should be transferred to the city police.

Mr. Fliegel of the Manhattan Institute argued that Mr. Cortines's departure will hinder the mayor's efforts to trim the school system bureaucracy because chancellors have tended to depend on the existing bureaucracy for guidance until they learn the job.

Mr. Koch predicted that the search for a new chancellor will be politically divisive.

Mr. Cortines, who previously ran the San Francisco schools, has refused to comment on his plans.

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