Levy To Stay in N.Y.C., Ackerman Quits D.C.

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Three big-city school districts weathered major transitions last week in their top management, as New York's temporary leader became its permanent one and the superintendents in the District of Columbia and Denver resigned.

The highest-visibility change was one in which the title but not the face changed: Harold O. Levy, the corporate executive who has been New York City's interim schools chancellor for four months, was named its new permanent chancellor, with an expected two-year contract and an annual salary of $245,000.

The unanimous vote by the school board in the 1.1 million-student system on May 17 was the final move in a series of twists that began early this year when the previous chancellor, Rudolph F. Crew, accepted a buyout agreement amid a deteriorating relationship with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. A search produced a number of finalists for the permanent job, but they dropped out one by one, leaving Mr. Levy as the sole contender as the board's decision drew near.

Mr. Giuliani had vehemently opposed the naming of Mr. Levy, 47, a lawyer and business executive with no experience in educational administration, as interim chancellor in January. But the mayor reversed his position last week as the board was about to tap Mr. Levy as the permanent leader.

"I hope this gives the school system a degree of stability that it deserves," Mr. Giuliani said.

Mr. Levy said in a statement that he appreciated the mayor's support and looked forward to "working with him to move the system to higher levels of performance." Mr. Levy is widely credited with winning over a skeptical school board with his direct, highly involved style and such initiatives as expanding the district's summer school program and warning that administrators would be held accountable for their schools' performance.

In a brief address to the board after his election, Mr. Levy—the first businessman and the first noneducator to head the nation's largest school system—said he believes the district is "capable of creating greatness." Among the goals he listed were streamlining the system's bureaucracy and forging school partnerships with businesses, parents, and community leaders.

Shakeup in D.C.

Mr. Levy's appointment came the same day that District of Columbia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman accepted a job as the chief of the San Francisco schools. Days of private talks with officials in the nation's capital, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams, failed to keep her.

At a news conference the day after she announced her decision, Ms. Ackerman echoed the sentiments she had expressed to Washington's city leaders for much of her two-year tenure.

She is leaving, she said, because the 70,000-student district's unique governance system, with its multiple layers of oversight, ties her hands in too many ways. The mayor, the District of Columbia Council, the school board, Congress, and the financial-control board that oversees many aspects of city government all have some role in school district affairs.

Ms. Ackerman urged officials to create a system with clearer and less conflicting lines of accountability.

"The city is going to have to deal with the complex, tangled governance structure," she said. "There are too many people involved in the day-to-day operations," she added, urging the various governing bodies to "hold us accountable, give us the resources we need, but then get out of the way of the day-to-day management."

Ms. Ackerman, 53, said she was proud of her accomplishments: improved academic achievement, a fairer funding system, and the implementation of academic-content standards, among other measures.

But she lamented that she had not been given enough authority to fix significant problems with procurement and budgeting, and she said that had undermined her academic goals. Many teachers and principals who were recruited to help improve the district, she noted, have left because they were not getting paid on time.

Ms. Ackerman expressed the hope that by publicly airing her grievances with the system, it could be improved so that the next superintendent can do what all school leaders want to do—help children. And in a twist on the song Tony Bennett made famous, she said: "Though I will be leaving for San Francisco, I will leave a part of my heart here in Washington, D.C."

Lack of Confidence

The most unanticipated change of the three announcements was the stepping-down of Denver's Sidney "Chip" Zullinger in the face of a clearly unhappy school board after only nine months on the job. At a May 15 executive session that Mr. Zullinger attended, the board discussed his evaluation, and it was decided that he would step aside, said district spokeswoman Amy Hudson. Mr. Zullinger, 49, will continue to receive his $142,000 salary for 18 months, but his resignation was effective immediately.

School board President Elaine Gantz Berman characterized the decision as difficult but amicable. Mr. Zullinger did a "phenomenal" job with externally focused goals such as building relations with the community and the teachers' union, she said. But board members had lost confidence in him, she continued, because they believed his day-to-day skills in running the 70,000-student district were not up to par.

"We had an individual who had a wonderful vision of what the [district] could look like, but lacked the management skills to make it happen," Ms. Berman said. "We never got beyond the words."

Mr. Zullinger did not return calls seeking comment.

The board named an assistant superintendent, Bernadette Romero Seick, a 30-year veteran of the district, as the acting superintendent.

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Page 3

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Levy To Stay in N.Y.C., Ackerman Quits D.C.
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