Mayors, Superintendents Pledge Greater Cooperation

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Kicking off the Council of the Great City Schools' annual conference last week was an unprecedented gathering of mayors and school superintendents from many of the largest U.S. cities.

The meeting, co-sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, was considered a landmark at a time when mayors often speak of school improvement as critical to revitalizing urban areas. But in some cities, that interest is seen as an intrusion into the traditional barrier between the city government and the school district.

"In lots of places, mayors and superintendents don't talk much," said Thomas W. Payzant, Boston's superintendent. "This was an opportunity to begin a conversation about key educational issues that are facing the cities."

David Snead

Such a conversation was particularly appropriate in the Motor City, where tension between the superintendent the and mayor has made headlines recently. Some school board members have publicly accused "corporate interests" of trying to oust Superintendent David Snead and put Mayor Dennis Archer in charge.

The conflict stems partly from the high profile of a group of business and civic leaders called New Detroit Inc., which led an audit of the district and has taken on a leading role in helping reform its financial and academic operations.

The friction between the mayor and the superintendent is also said to have roots in the failed 1993 mayoral bid by Mr. Snead's wife, Sharon McPhail.

Gov. John Engler first raised the idea of a state takeover of failing Michigan school districts--possibly with Detroit in mind--earlier this year. But Mr. Snead said last week that he and Mr. Archer are on good terms, and that the 180,000-student district is far from a state of crisis. He noted that the district has restructured its debt and improved its scores on state tests.

"There's no need for a takeover, and I think the mayor understands that," Mr. Snead said.

The discussion at the gathering often turned to Chicago, where a chief executive appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley has won kudos for shaking up the 424,000-student system. And several superintendents and board members here said that mayors have an important role to play in boosting the image of the public schools and helping them secure resources.

"It was sort of a love fest," said the Long Beach, Calif., superintendent, Carl A. Cohn. "What I hope for in the future is more discussion about setting up some guidelines for mayors and superintendents about the conditions that could lead to government takeovers."

The roughly 600 educators at the Oct. 15-18 conference attended workshops on reading, parent involvement, reconstitution, school finance, and teacher recruitment.

One seminar dealt with President Clinton's proposed voluntary national tests in reading and math. Fifteen urban school systems initially signed on to the administration's plan. Three of them have since said they would not give the reading test because it would be offered only in English. ("National Tests, Title I at Odds on Language," in This Week's News.)

Still, the expected participation by many big-city districts shows they aren't afraid of high standards, said Wilma Brown, the council's chairwoman and a Toledo school board member. San Francisco Superintendent Waldemar Rojas agreed. "We would be ready to go forward whenever they are."

But he and other superintendents endorsed the view that the tests should be available in languages other than English.

And some educators here said the focus on testing is misguided. "We have enough tests," said Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds of St. Louis. "Our problem is marshaling the resources to respond to our problems."

Scarce resources for urban education was a theme sounded by one of the conference's keynote speakers, former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

Mario M. Cuomo

"If we're going to set the bar high, we're going to have to have all the things we need to get the children over that bar," the prominent Democrat said, drawing hearty applause. "If we pretend that we can succeed by providing the things that do not cost money and not providing the things that do, who are we kidding? We're hypocrites."


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