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Published in Print: May 15, 2002, as N.Y. District Braces For State Takeover

N.Y. District Braces For State Takeover

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Basir Mchawi strides through the halls of Roosevelt Junior-Senior High School with a walkie-talkie in his hand. "Take off the do-rags!" the principal shouts at male students wearing headscarves. "Get to class, walk and talk!"

It's still early, but the principal is already juggling competing demands. A frustrated parent is waiting for him at the school's office. Inside classrooms, students take practice exams to prepare for New York's mathematics assessment. But right now, Mr. Mchawi vents.

He's frustrated with the negative publicity that is swirling around the Roosevelt school district, whose long-standing academic and fiscal problems drove New York lawmakers to pass a recent measure that calls for a state takeover of the system. "The media has painted a totally negative picture and one that is distorted," Mr. Mchawi said. "The rap that the school and the district is taking is an illusion. It's promulgated by people not from here. Are we where we want to be? No. But we're getting there."

In April, Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, signed legislation that gives the state education commissioner the power to disband the district's school board— which he did May 8—and empowers the state board of regents to name an interim board.

Though the state has intervened in other districts before, including Roosevelt, such a move represents a far stronger action.

The decision is sharply dividing this mostly African-American, working-class community of well- tended lawns and ranch-style homes in Nassau County, on Long Island.

For many in this town that stretches a mere one mile, and its school system of some 3,000 students, the impending takeover signals an ominous blow to local control, and has come to symbolize the historical neglect of predominantly black districts.

Critics also doubt the state can improve academic performance here, and they raise the specter of school management by for-profit companies.

Darren Connor, the president of the Roosevelt school board, charges that the state has set the district up for failure by not providing enough resources.

Because Roosevelt has few businesses to help pay the property taxes that finance schools, residents here are also burdened with the highest school taxes in Nassau County.

"We are being used as the test case for ensuing takeovers," Mr. Connor said. "It was racially motivated. ... They are saying the democratic process when it comes to black school districts takes a back seat to what the white man wants."

Changes Ahead?

Other residents, frustrated over the slow pace of school improvement, are willing to trying something new.

Rhonda Cherry, the PTA president at Centennial Avenue Elementary School, believes that more state oversight will breathe new life into a dying district. "I'm concerned about my child's education," she said at a lunch table in the school's noisy cafeteria. "We haven't had the resources. The only choice was to have the state come in here. There was no accountability here, and now they will be accountable."

In a last-ditch effort to retain control, Roosevelt's school board met with Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills on May 6. Board members argued that they shouldn't be penalized for the actions of past boards, and said that prior state intervention had not helped the district.

But two days later, citing "serious deficiencies" in the district, Mr. Mills ruled to disband the school board. The state is expected to appoint a new interim board on May 22. At least three Roosevelt residents would be on the five-member board.

Beginning in 2007, Roosevelt voters would begin filling the board with locally elected representatives.

The state commissioner, however, will have the authority until at least 2011 to hire and fire the district's superintendent, veto appointments of other top administrators and principals, and sign off on district budget matters.

The takeover legislation also provides an additional $6 million annually in state aid to the district, and requires the state to conduct an assessment of district facilities that could provide for a new elementary school, as well as a new middle and high school.

That promise of extra help has given some people here in what is formally known as the Roosevelt Union Free School District faith in a more prominent state role as the last, best hope for the district.

Supporters of a takeover point to a host of problems, such as low test scores, high dropout rates, crumbling school facilities, and the fact that few students leave school with a state regents' diploma, New York's premier high school credential.

Meanwhile, the district has had five superintendents since 1995. The school board also tried to remove the current superintendent, but Commissioner Mills overruled the move.

And the middle and high school was closed for two days last year after a series of fights, fires, and bomb threats.

'All Talk'

All the talk of change, however, means nothing to David Braxton. The way he sees it, the more people seem to talk, the less anything really changes.

"The kids see the hypocrisy of adults," said Mr. Braxton, who helps run the popular Roosevelt Youth Center, which sits on a dead- end road inside a former Jewish temple. "Adults forget that children always listen. This school system is broke, and it needs to be fixed. Someone needs to do something for the kids' sake."

Mr. Braxton, a well-sculpted 39-year-old who acts as a surrogate father and relentless advocate for many of the teenagers here, spots fresh graffiti on the building: gang colors. "We don't play that turf thing here," he said, eyeing the markings.

Mr. Braxton has lived the same street experiences as the young people here, many of whom are foster children. He lifts weights and plays basketball with them. If something breaks, he fixes it.

Most of the teenagers are well aware their school district is seen as a failure, he said. They also know that, in many cases, those responsible for making decisions haven't served them well.

It's a sentiment that isn't hard to find from the students here. Brian Bates, a 10th grader at Roosevelt Junior-Senior High, talks about his school and the state's plan to run the district.

"When you keep telling the students that the school might close down, it makes students not care," he said, referring to the state education commissioner's initial plan earlier this year to send students to surrounding districts. "Kids do what they want," he continued. "They cut class or cuss teachers out."

As for the prospect that the state might help turn the district around, Mr. Bates isn't hopeful. Referring to the state's earlier intervention, the student said: "They took over six years ago, and it still didn't do anything. They're just all talk."

Policy Debate

Roosevelt and the state are no strangers to each other.

Since 1989, one or more of Roosevelt's five schools have been under state review for poor performance.

Seven years ago, the legislature authorized the state board of regents to oust the local school board and appoint a review panel to act as a liaison between the district and the state. Relations between the review panel and a newly elected school board were frayed from the start.

The attitude of some state overseers put off many board and community members. One of the panel's reports concluded: "If a community could be charged with child neglect, possibly with abuse, Roosevelt would be a strong candidate."

Earlier this year, the Roosevelt school board refused Mr. Mills' demand that it cut some $3 million from its $39 million budget to prevent the district from going bankrupt. In response, the commissioner overruled the local board and gave the review panel new power to run the district's finances.

Last fall, Mr. Mills threatened to dissolve the district and send students to neighboring schools. The idea was met with angry protests from Roosevelt residents, and the mainly white surrounding districts made it known, loud and clear, they didn't want students from Roosevelt.

The state legislature ultimately decided to take action.

Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., a Republican who represents Roosevelt and sponsored the takeover legislation in the upper house, says the status quo has failed the students here.

"The falling scores, absentee rates, and infighting among school board members have not changed," he said. "It's been a complete failure on the part of the caretakers in the district."

But Seretta McKnight, a former Roosevelt school board president and a prominent community activist who grew up here, says the state has little to show for the considerable power it has already had over the district.

"They're not concerned about our children," said Ms. McKnight, a striking, 6-foot-tall woman who attended Roosevelt schools and hosts a radio call-in show. "The state has not been accountable. That's the bottom line. What the state department has done flies in the face of civility."

Making Lemonade

Richard Cate, the chairman of the state review panel in Roosevelt, says he understands the anger expressed by many residents here, but hopes a constructive dialogue between the state education department and local residents will help improve the school system.

"A state takeover is the last thing in the world anyone wants," Mr. Cate said. "This represents the desperation of the situation."

People here express a growing weariness over the relentless jousting between district and state officials.

"The local-governance issue is not a decision for me to make or a conversation for me to have," said Horace Williams, the superintendent of schools. "The political bickering and the back and forth have nothing to do with children."

Mr. Williams, who has managed the district for the past two years, believes a dire lack of money—many schools have gone without adequate textbooks and basic supplies for years—and a curriculum that is not closely aligned with state standards have left students shortchanged.

He and other district administrators are building an accountability system that he says was never in place. "This legislation takes away all the excuses as to why the district can't perform," he added.

In the classroom, most educators have had little time to worry about who controls the district.

A high metal fence surrounds the large section of Ulysses Byas Elementary School. The school, which has serious structural damage, was condemned by the state this winter. Since then, pupils from three grades have shared the cafeteria for classes. Now, a closet is sometimes the only private place for counselors to meet with students.

Relief is coming, however, as students and staff have begun moving into portable classrooms in recent days.

"The children have adapted very well," said Illian Coggins-Watson, the school's principal. She's not pointing any fingers or looking to blame anyone for the conditions at the building. She's busy running a school and will leave the political battles to others.

"We continue to be positive and refuse to be victimized," she said. "We're taking lemons and making lemonade. We're not stopping anything. It's business as usual."

Vol. 21, Issue 36, Pages 1,16-17

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