Published Online: February 25, 1998

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Urban Education

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You wouldn't think that Louis R. Maldonado, the president of Community School Board 12 in the South Bronx, would have much nice to say about New York City's new school governance structure.

After all, Mr. Maldonado was at the center of a protracted power struggle with Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew in 1996 after Mr. Crew tried to oust the board in a dispute over its choice of a superintendent.

That headline-grabbing clash was widely seen as the final straw that led state lawmakers to grant Mr. Crew's demands for greater control over the city's 32 subdistrict boards. The resulting law deprived those boards of nothing less than their authority to hire and fire school employees.

Given that history, one might expect Mr. Maldonado to be a critic of the new order. Not so.

"I think the new governance is great," he said during a recent conference sponsored by the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University. "It's all in the head that you lost power. We have the power to set policy, and that's real power."

Mr. Maldonado's take was just what Mr. Crew wanted to hear.

For the system to work, the chancellor said at the conference, people must resist thinking of it merely as a rollback of the 1969 decentralization law that spawned the local boards. "People are going to have to suspend their disbelief, and imagine what they could see in an environment driven not by control but by commitment," Mr. Crew said.

In a paper prepared for the conference, David C. Bloomfield, a Teachers College adjunct professor, and Bruce S. Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University, bolstered Mr. Crew's point. "Greater central activity and authority--when directed at standards and enforcement and recognition of quality--may in fact empower and enliven local decisionmakers and improve classroom performance," they argued. By allowing for "strategic management," they said, the new power structure represents "a sea change in urban school governance."

Not everyone at the conference agreed. "We are being marginalized," complained Reginald H. Bowman, a board member in District 23 in Brooklyn. "And we really want to feel like we're participants in the process."

But David S. Seeley, an education professor at the College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York system, said the new structure would be only what the city makes of it. "Radical change can be brought about through this law," he said. "But we have to do it. The law can't do it for us."

--CAROLINE HENDRIE chendrie@epe.org

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