Panel Is Set To Probe New York City Corruption Scandal

By William Snider — January 11, 1989 3 min read

The mayor of New York City has named a five-member commission with a $1-million budget to investigate the drug and corruption scandals that have rocked the nation’s largest school system over the past two months.

Mayor Edward I. Koch announced the formation of the Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools shortly before Christmas, saying he would ask the city council to grant the panel subpoena powers to enable it to compel testimony from witnesses.

The investigative body will be known as the “Gill Commission,” after its appointed chairman, James F. Gill, a former assistant district attorney.

The commission has a broad mandate to examine the city’s 18-year-old system of decentralized school governance and recommend reforms.

But it also has political significance in the city, marking a new level of in4volvement for Mayor Koch in the affairs of the scandal-ridden school system. While the mayor has long been a critic of the system’s performance, he has heretofore avoided actions that could be seen as infringing on the power of local school officials.

In recent remarks, however, the mayor has pointed to what he says is a pressing need to shore up public confidence in the schools, which he describes as being in trouble even before this most recent round of scandals.

Mr. Koch formed the commission after Gov. Mario Cuomo declined his request to name a state-level body to look into the corruption charges.

The mayor’s commission joins a host of other investigations that have been set in motion since Nov. 9, when the principal of an elementary school in the Bronx was arrested for allegedly buying cocaine from a street dealer.

The arrest touched off a flood of al8legations that other community-school-board members and employees have been engaged in illegal drug use and sales, the trading of jobs for political favors, and the theft of school equipment and supplies, among other charges.

School and law-enforcement officials are currently investigating specific charges leveled against board members and school employees in a total of 11 of the city’s 32 community districts.

The investigations have already led to the arrest of two teachers on drug-related charges and one other on a weapons-violation charge.

Revelations that the Bronx principal arrested in November had retained his position despite a long history of work-related problems deepened the scandal and raised questions about the oversight functions of the community districts, which run the city’s elementary and junior high schools.

The state department of education last month initiated a new reel10lview of the city’s decentralized governance system that will focus on the central board’s power to remedy persistent problems in the community school districts.

A separate state evaluation of the 18-year-old system of school decentralization was mandated by legislation passed last month.

The widening schools scandal has also prompted state legislators to act on a bill aimed at reducing the politicization of the city’s community boards. The measure prohibits school employees and political leaders from serving on the boards and requires all board candidates to submit to the state’s tighter financial-disclosure and conflict-of-interest requirements.

The new law will take effect in time to apply to community-board elections slated for May 2.

The bill also requires Richard R. Green, New York City’s schools chancellor, to conduct his own study of school-board campaign4practices and political patronage in the community districts, and to transmit his findings to the legislature by March 15.

A separate bill passed by the legislature last month attempts to address the city’s pressing facilities problems by creating a new school-construction authority to expedite the approval of building contracts.

The existing process for approving new construction had been blamed for delaying for several years the completion of facilities badly needed to alleviate serious overcrowding in some community districts.

The new law exempts city school-construction projects from certain state labor laws for a period of five years and transfers authority over the construction from the citywide board of education to a three-member panel that includes Chancellor Green.

The state’s action also clears the way for the use of $600 million in surplus municipal funds for school construction. That sum will be added to the $5.2 billion the city plans to spend on the district’s capital needs over the next five years.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1989 edition of Education Week as Panel Is Set To Probe New York City Corruption Scandal