School & District Management

Compromise Over N.Y.C. Board May Be at Hand

By John Gehring — April 24, 2002 3 min read
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A compromise may be within reach in the difficult negotiations between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and state lawmakers over the mayor’s wish to have greater control of the nation’s largest school district.

While the details of a new school governance plan have not been worked out, and obstacles still remain, Mr. Bloomberg has in the past few weeks signaled a willingness to consider alternatives to abolishing the city’s current board of education. Mr. Bloomberg and other critics regard the board as an ineffective forum for improving achievement in the 1.1 million-student public schools.

The Republican mayor, who took office in January, had held firm for months to his demand that the school board be dismantled. His stance has softened in recent weeks, however, after he faced criticism from some legislators over what they see as his inflexibility on the issue.

Several meetings between the mayor and Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, have made some kind of deal seem more likely by the end of June, the deadline state lawmakers have been operating under to make a change that could be in place by next school year.

“The discussions have been productive,” said Skip Carrier, a spokesman for Mr. Silver. “The speaker feels he has a good relationship with this mayor.”

One option on the table that Mayor Bloomberg now seems more open to considering is retaining the board in an advisory capacity. Board members would help craft education policy but would not have the power to make administrative decisions.

The mayor’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

Momentum and Desire

Mr. Bloomberg has been unequivocal since he began his campaign for mayor last year that he wants more responsibility for the fate of the city’s schools, and believes the schools chancellor, who currently is appointed by the board, should serve at the mayor’s pleasure.

Under the present setup, the mayor appoints two members to the seven-member central board, while the presidents of New York City’s five boroughs appoint the others. Locally elected community school boards help govern the city’s 32 subdistricts.

Steven Sanders, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly education committee and a close ally of Mr. Silver’s, said that despite the recent progress in school talks, the Assembly was not likely to accept an advisory board with little power.

“Having a system in which only the mayor and his appointees have all of the decisionmaking is a situation I don’t see occurring,” Mr. Sanders said. “Up until about 10 days ago, there seemed to be positions that were hardened and intractable. The mayor initially had a very extreme position.”

Mr. Sanders, however, said he sees hope for a compromise: “There is a momentum and a desire to accomplish this. If we don’t, we would have let an important opportunity slip away.”

In January, the legislature took a big step toward change by postponing New York City’s community school board elections in light of the broader conversation about restructuring the school system. (“New York City Local Board Elections Postponed,” Feb. 6, 2002.)

While Gov. George E. Pataki and other Republicans have for years supported abolishing both the central and local school boards, the Democratically controlled Assembly has consistently opposed the idea. But Mr. Bloomberg has much better relations with Democrats than did his predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose aggressive style alienated many lawmakers during his push for mayoral control of the schools

While city Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy would not comment on what role the mayor should have in the system, a spokeswoman for Mr. Levy said he was “glad the issue of governance is at the center of debate.”

Kathryn S. Wylde, a member of an advisory committee on school governance formed by Mr. Silver, said lawmakers and business leaders agree that the city’s current governance structure needs to be changed. High turnover among schools chancellors and the perceived ineffectiveness of the school board, Ms. Wylde said, have created momentum for reform.

“The current system hasn’t worked, and there is near universal agreement the chancellor has to be on the mayor’s team,” said Ms. Wylde, the president and chief executive officer of the New York City Partnership, an organization that works to improve the city’s economic climate.

But Bertha Lewis, the executive director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a citywide group that works to help parents improve the education system, said the current discussions are all about power politics.

“This is a political discussion that has nothing to do with education,” she said. “It’s insulting to the 1.1 million schoolchildren, most of whom are black and brown, to say that we need some sort of big daddy.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Compromise Over N.Y.C. Board May Be at Hand

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