When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed abolishing New York City’s 32 community school boards last year, he faced little opposition. Tales of the panels’ dysfunction and political patronage abounded.
But he did more than dissolve the local school boards. He wiped out the community school district offices as well, crafting a new organizational structure that has bewildered parents and angered some of the very state lawmakers who granted the businessman-turned-mayor expanded powers over the nation’s largest school system last year.
Now, the authority handed to him in a widely watched vote by the legislature last June is being parsed in Albany’s Statehouse and in stacks of legal papers in a Manhattan courthouse.
“There’s a difference between reforming a system and deforming it,” said state Sen. Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn Democrat who filed suit last month to block the Republican mayor’s closure of the 32 community district offices. “The mayor has gone beyond what we gave him the right to do.”
The school governance law enacted in 2002 expanded the citywide board of education, reduced its powers, and permitted Mr. Bloomberg to choose the district chancellor. (June 19, 2002.)
The current tension, however, revolves around the law’s abolition of the 32 community school boards by June of this year, and whether the mayor is allowed to close district offices and revamp the administration.
Mr. Bloomberg, in a Jan. 15 speech, suggested replacing the local boards with panels of elected parents, an idea that will be weighed, along with other proposals, by the state legislature. But in the same remarks, he announced other sweeping changes, including shuttering the 32 community district offices and instituting 10 new instructional regions, overlaid with six administrative zones. (Jan. 22, 2003.)
Critics argue that by forming 10 regions out of 32, Mr. Bloomberg has restructured the system of 1.1 million students in a way that makes it more remote from parents, and raises scores of unanswered questions about how its 1,200 schools will be run.
The mayor rejects those criticisms, contending that the new organization chart provides for more efficient delivery of both administrative and instructional services, downsizes the scale of local school administration, and preserves local community access.
Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott, one of Mr. Bloomberg’s top education advisers, said former community district employees would remain accessible, working in the regional offices or in school buildings. Each of the 10 regional offices will house 10 local supervisors, who each will oversee no more than a dozen schools. The offices will be open six days and two evenings a week, Mr. Walcott said.
The boundaries of the 32 community districts are unaltered, he said, and parents in each would elect other parents to serve as conduits for their concerns. In addition, a parent ombudsman at each school will handle parents’ questions and concerns, he said.
“We’re talking about breaking the system down into even smaller components to deal with more instructional hand-holding,” Mr. Walcott said. “We’re looking at how we reinforce relationships to parents at every local school and regional level.”
Some critics of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan reject his claim that it preserves the 32 community districts. It’s one thing to replace the school boards with parent panels, they said, and quite another to replace 32 local offices with 10 regional ones. Five of the six Republicans who represent New York City in the state Senate issued a statement on Jan. 28 criticizing the mayor as having overstepped his bounds.
“Essentially, these actions eliminate community school districts,” the senators said. “The state legislature did not pass any legislation last session with the intention of dismantling the system in its entirety.”
The senators ticked off a list of questions raised by the reorganization, focusing in particular on how it will affect parents. “We’d like to know where PTAs will go, where parents and guardians will go, to voice concerns, resolve problems and express opinions,” they said.
Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the legislature’s lower chamber, said there were “certainly legal questions” about whether the mayor’s actions constituted elimination of the community school districts, a move Mr. Sanders said was not contemplated by the school governance law.
The 32 districts’ boundary lines remain intact, he said, but without local offices or superintendents, they no longer function as complete districts. Under state law, each school district is required to have a superintendent, he noted.
A task force Mr. Sanders recently co-chaired recommended replacing each community board with a panel of eight parents, two community members, and a high school student. The composition of those panels ultimately will be decided by the legislature.
Some New Yorkers also were concerned about the way Mr. Bloomberg’s plan set up one chain of command for the six regional administrative areas and another for the 10 instructional areas.
“When the flow of money isn’t contiguous with the districts, it raises questions about what kind of control [local] superintendents will have over budgets and people,” said Arthur R. Greenberg, a former community superintendent in Queens who now is a professor of educational administration at New York University.
“The relationship between the 10 mega-districts and the 32 districts is very unclear,” said Jill Chaifetz, a parent of three city schoolchildren and the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, a nonprofit advocacy group for education.
“There are so many changes with not a lot of information as to what they will mean,” she said. “It’s unbelievably confusing.”