Published Online: January 15, 1997


Crew Packs Arsenal of New Powers in N.Y.C.

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It was nearly 5 p.m. on his first day back from the winter break, and New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew had not even had lunch. As his chauffeur-driven Chevrolet Suburban wound through Brooklyn's rush-hour traffic toward a meeting with the mayor, it became clear that dinner would be a long way off.

But Mr. Crew was in no mood for complaining, even if he had found the time. On this first business day of the new year, the head of the nation's largest school system was right where he wanted to be.

Just days before the holiday break, the 46-year-old administrator had emerged as the big winner in the most significant shake-up in a generation of the way the city runs its schools. After months of political maneuvering, Mr. Crew had seized an arsenal of new powers he believed would finally put him in charge of the system he had ostensibly been running for the past 14 months.

The big losers were the city's local elected school boards, which were stripped of much of their authority by a state law enacted late last month. Since taking office in October 1995, Mr. Crew had clashed repeatedly with several of those boards, which have been accused over the years of everything from election fraud to job selling to petty thievery. ("N.Y.C. Chancellor Seizes Control of 2 Local Boards," Feb. 21, 1996, and "Crew, Justice Department At Odds Over N.Y.C. Board," Nov. 27, 1996.)

The legislation does not lack for critics, especially among champions of local control. Many perceive it as an unhealthy return to the centralization that was first imposed on the system a century ago. And even strong supporters concede that the new law is no panacea for problems that include severely crowded and decrepit facilities, chronically failing schools, and a rigid and stifling bureaucracy.

Still, Mr. Crew and his allies are convinced that the law offers a real chance to eradicate longstanding obstacles to progress in a system responsible for educating more than 1 million children.

"It's a really defining moment for systemic reform in the city of New York," Mr. Crew said that afternoon earlier this month. "There's a lot of trepidation, but it's exactly the kind of trepidation you want. In many respects, this gives me the chance to really go to work."

System Rooted in '60s

The new law recasts a governance structure born amid the turbulence of the late 1960s, a time when black and Latino activists made strong bids for community control and the city's schools were repeatedly shut down by teachers' strikes.

In the wake of that turmoil, the legislature enacted a compromise decentralization law in 1969 that established the position of chancellor and divided the city into 32 community school districts, each with its own superintendent and elected board.

Under that structure, the chancellor--reporting to the citywide school board appointed by the mayor and New York's five borough presidents--had direct jurisdiction over the city's more than 200 high schools. He also controlled such centralized functions as transportation, payroll, building maintenance, and purchasing.

But the 32 community boards were charged with running the elementary, middle, and junior high schools that make up the rest of the 1,100-school system, subject to oversight by the central board.

Critics have argued for years that this dual system helped blur the lines of authority and accountability to the point that educational buck-passing has become as much a part of New York City as the skyline.

"The only people New York held accountable for the quality of its schools were its children," observed Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University. "Nobody--but nobody--had the kind of leverage to produce the kind of change that is needed."

Last month, propelled in part by a series of scandals involving the community boards, state leaders in Albany moved to give the chancellor that leverage.

The bill, which was made possible after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani backed off from his demands for direct control of the schools, was passed during a special legislative session on a vote of 127-14 in the Democratically controlled Assembly and 47-9 in the GOP-led Senate. It was signed by Republican Gov. George E. Pataki on Dec. 31.

Power Shifts Under Law

Among other provisions, the new law:

  • Transfers from the community boards to the chancellor the power to appoint superintendents of local districts, which range in size from about 10,000 to more than 40,000 students. Each community board is expected to nominate up to four candidates for the post, but the chancellor can keep rejecting the list until he is satisfied. Superintendents' contracts will be standardized by the chancellor.
  • Shifts control over the hiring of principals and other staff members from the community boards to the superintendents, and gives the chancellor veto power over the naming of principals. The chancellor may remove any community board member for interfering in the hiring process. Such board members are also subject to new training and financial-disclosure requirements.
  • Expands and clarifies the chancellor's power to take over or order improvements in poorly performing districts or schools and to override local decisions. The law spells out the chancellor's role as one of "chief executive officer" of the system.
  • Requires the chancellor to devise a plan for setting up and training advisory school-based councils of parents and school personnel to share decisionmaking in every school by 1999. This puts into law a little-enforced state regulation enacted in 1992 that requires schools to draw up such plans.
  • Mandates a stronger role for principals and their advisory councils in setting school budgets.

Taken together, the legislation creates "a coherent string of accountability" and gives the chancellor the tools he needs to manage a system that many have long feared was unmanageable, said Democratic Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the chairman of the education committee in the lower house and a leading player in the marathon negotiations that led to the bill's passage.

"We were looking to strike a balance between accountability at the top and meaningful local input into decisions," he said.

Power Structure Questioned

But critics doubt that the proper balance has been struck. Despite the sympathy of lawmakers for granting individual schools greater autonomy, some parent groups and those who work with them complain that the legislation pays only lip service to the idea of school-based governance.

"Parents and teachers have no voice," said Kavitha Mediratta, the co-director of community-involvement programs at the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. "They have a role but they have no real decisionmaking power."

One area in which Mr. Crew will be able to assert his new authority quickly is that of selecting superintendents.

Most of the law is not scheduled to take effect until the end of March. But because the contracts of the 32 local chiefs expire at the end of this school year, those portions of the law pertaining to the hiring of superintendents became binding upon passage to allow the hiring process to move forward.

In a handful of districts, the community boards have already voted to extend their superintendents' contracts. The rest, at least in theory, are in play.

Mr. Crew predicted that he would wind up forcing out a handful of superintendents supported by community boards and that some boards would "play games" and repeatedly send him nominees that are unacceptable. But on the whole, he said, the process should work out fairly well.

Diane Ravitch, an expert on New York City schools and a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, said too many of the community boards had proven more interested in patronage, perks, and politics than education and that they deserve to be abolished altogether. But she agreed that the legislation should have done far more to empower schools.

"Recentralizing everything into the hands of the chancellor is not the answer," said Ms. Ravitch, who is now a senior researcher at NYU. "He's not the captain of a ship, he's a harbor master. There are 1,100 ships in his harbor and he can't run all of them. You have to trust the captain and the crew."

Sandra Feldman, the president of the city's 125,000-member United Federation of Teachers and a strong backer of the bill, disagreed that the new law represents recentralization. "I see this as a correction," she said.

Chancellor Crew, for his part, argues that clarifying the lines of accountability will directly serve the interests of individual schools.

"A clearer line of supervision over superintendents is exactly what we need to assure there will be strong, vibrant leadership at the school level," he said. He added that the law will help schools develop the shared sense of purpose they have lacked for too long.

"This is a system that was a loose confederation of schools," he said. "It wasn't bound together by a common vision."

Mr. Crew said he saw his chief task in the coming months as "marketing" the new law and inviting more people to participate in the process of improving schools.

"You know the adage that everyone has hanging on their wall right now: 'It takes a village to raise a child'?" the chancellor said. "Well now is the time for the village to show up."

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