New York City Local Board Elections Postponed

By John Gehring — February 06, 2002 3 min read

The New York state legislature has voted to postpone community school board elections in New York City, marking the latest development in a growing debate over how best to run the nation’s largest school system.

State and local leaders have long talked about ways to reorganize the governance of the 1.1 million-student district, but the one-year delay of the May 7 elections for 32 local school boards is one of lawmakers’ most significant steps on the issue in the past several years. The move also comes at a time when the city’s new mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, is lobbying for greater power over the city’s schools.

Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democratic chairman of the education committee in the Assembly, New York’s lower legislative chamber, said that postponing the elections would give lawmakers time to look at revamping the school board voting system and having a broader conversation about change at the top of the system.

“This seemed to be an appropriate time to step back,” Mr. Sanders said.

At the very least, lawmakers want to simplify a notoriously confusing school board voting process that has in part contributed to abysmal voter turnouts—often in the single digits—for many of those elections.

In addition, the city’s Board of Elections had also requested a delay in the board voting in order to save money and give election officials more time to focus on congressional and legislative redistricting.

Community school districts were created three decades ago as a means of empowering communities to become more involved with the school system.

Over the years, however, they became platforms for candidates looking to run for higher political offices, while corruption scandals tarnished boards’ reputations. In 1996, the legislature addressed patronage and other abuse on the school boards by taking away their hiring powers.

The Jan. 28 decision by the legislature came a day before Mayor Bloomberg made a visit to Albany, the state capital, in the hopes of generating even more momentum for school governance changes.

Mayor’s Agenda

Throughout his campaign, the Republican media mogul called for abolishing the central board and letting the mayor appoint the schools’ chancellor, who would report directly to City Hall.

Mr. Bloomberg, who has received praise for striking a more cooperative tone with lawmakers than his combative predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, again expressed to legislators his desire for more control over local schools.

Currently, the mayor appoints two members to the central board, while the presidents of New York City’s five boroughs appoint the remaining members.

Mr. Giuliani, a Republican, also pushed for mayoral control of the school system during his eight-year tenure, but the Democratically controlled Assembly consistently opposed that wish. Gov. George E. Pataki and other Republicans have for years supported abolishing both the central and local school boards.

Mr. Sanders, who sits on a legislative panel that is studying mayoral control, said he expects the legislature to support “reform and restructuring at the top of the system.”

He does not, however, believe that there is widespread support to abolish the central board of education. “I highly doubt there will be a consensus to obliterate the board and give all power to the mayor,” he said.

Robert L. Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, a New York City organization working to improve the city schools, said any changes to the system’s governance structure must allow the schools chancellor to make decisions without becoming mired in political battles, and to be open to community input from parents. “The postponement does raise the ante,” he said. “The legislature does have to act.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as New York City Local Board Elections Postponed