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Crew, Justice Department At Odds Over N.Y.C. Board

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The ongoing struggle over control of the New York City schools flared up again last week when Chancellor Rudy F. Crew blocked several ousted members of one of the district's community school boards from returning to work.

Mr. Crew's actions came after the U.S. Department of Justice issued an opinion saying that he had run afoul of federal law when he dismissed the nine-member District 12 board last summer. The New York City district is divided into 32 subdistricts, each of which has its own school board.

The moves last week were the latest skirmishes in a continuing struggle over the governing structure of the 1.1 million-student district.

The community boards seek to hold on to the autonomy they currently have to oversee the operations of the city's elementary and middle schools. Meanwhile, Mr. Crew says he is attempting to protect the integrity of the school system amid widespread charges of corruption and mismanagement in the local districts.

In ousting the District 12 board last summer, Mr. Crew cited years of "chronic education failures," and appointed his own temporary trustees.

But in a Nov. 15 letter to the New York City district, Deval L. Patrick, the assistant U.S. attorney general for the civil rights division of the Justice Department, said the move violated the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mr. Crew's actions denied residents of the largely black and Hispanic community district the ability to select their own board representatives, Mr. Patrick wrote.

Nevertheless, the chancellor last week authorized security guards to bar four of the ousted board members from entering the District 12 offices. The board members then planted themselves outside the community school board's offices in the Bronx.

Armando Montano, the lawyer representing District 12, hailed the Justice Department's ruling and criticized Mr. Crew for usurping local control. "Basically, the chancellor is showing disrespect for the law," said Mr. Montano.

Reconsideration Sought

The Justice Department's opinion represents the first real setback for the chancellor on the governance issue.

The Justice Department upheld Mr. Crew's decision in February to seize control of two other community school boards. The chancellor had suspended the District 7 and District 9 boards after accusing their members of a range of misdeeds including patronage hiring and mismanagement. ("N.Y.C. Chancellor Seizes Control of 2 Local Boards," Feb. 21, 1996.)

The two boards, whose members have denied the corruption charges, are suing the city to be reinstated, but remain suspended pending an appeal in federal court, according to investigators for the city school system.

Mr. Montano said the Justice Department ruled in District 12's favor because board members were criticized for poor school performance, not wrongdoing.

In a letter to the Justice Department late last week, Mr. Crew said his decision to suspend the board was justified, and asked the department to reconsider its ruling.

As the legal wrangling continues, the state legislature may ultimately decide the issue. After the ousted board members posted themselves outside the District 12 building last week, Mr. Crew appealed to state lawmakers to clarify his role.

"It is time for the legislature in Albany to bring to closure the question of whether or not the chancellor will have the authority to run this school system," he said in a statement.

State lawmakers may hold a special session next month to consider a bill that would alter the way the system is governed, a legislative aide close to the process said last week.

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