1999-10-09 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Reform! It’s wonderful. Here we are in the middle of another reform movement. I remember the reform movement for the 1960's when the "experts" and the politicians believed that community control was the answer to all of the school system’s problems.

They put in a system of local school boards who would take away the hiring, curriculum and budgetary functions away from the professionals.

"The community knows what’s best for its schools," the experts said. "They will do the right thing."

Did they? I am laughing so hard over the recollection of those days and the perception that existed at that time that I can hardly type.

The community took over. In three districts, the "community" abruptly fired all of the union leaders in their schools. Most of them were Jewish and it became a hate issue as well as a union issue. In one district, the leaders of the district called all of the white teachers into the auditorium at the largest school in the district.

The lights were turned off and a shot was fired into the ceiling. The teachers were "advised" not to return to the district the next day. Nobody did!

In the same district, a federal monitor was locked in a closet for two days so that he could not see what was going on in the district.

There was a three-month long strike.

Welcome to community control.

The corruption was more insidious than the shot fired into the ceiling.

In some districts, principal’s jobs were sold for 10 grand. Board members stole from the kids both left and right.

While many school boards were made up of local politicians and political hacks who were not parents, in a majority of cases the board members were parents with kids in the district schools.

In this district, school board members established fiefdoms and demanded that anybody who wanted to become an administrator had to carry election petitions for the members and had to attend $100 buck-a-pop fund-raisers. Those who didn’t play along did not get the jobs. Those who did rose like a Phoenix. Unless, of course, you were a minority. The board generally excluded minority candidates from consideration for an administrative job unless it was for one of the "Rockaway" schools such as IS 53 or JHS 198. Those schools did not matter at all to most of the board members, so anything could happen in those schools and it often did.

Welcome to community control.

Our District 27 board has done its job well after a time when central board trustees ran the schools and then local trustees (chosen by the chancellor) took over. We have had a good board for the past several years, but many local boards continued to play the same games of cronyism and excess right until the end.

Because of the excesses, a new school governance law was passed two years ago. It took all the power away from the school board and invested much of it in the chancellor and in his or her hand-picked superintendent.

Now, however, we have real reform.

The decision making power, you see, for curriculum, budgetary considerations and, in some cases, hiring, has been placed in the hands of "Leadership Teams in each school."

Who makes up the leadership teams? Unlike the old "Vision," "Corridor," "CSIP," "SBM" teams (did I leave any out?) these teams are not to be dominated by teachers or administrators. Parents must have an equal representation of the team. If there are four teachers, an administrator and a UFT representative, then there must be six parents or no meetings may be held without the chancellor’s permission.

The idea is that parent’s really know the educational needs of their kids better than the professionals and that, as parents, "they will do the right thing."

Is this starting to sound familiar? I thought so.

There are problems with the implementation of the plan, as there always are when the plan involves school governance.

First of all, there are many schools in the district who have trouble getting two parents to a meeting no matter when it is held. How will the Leadership Team govern if it can’t hold meetings? Nobody has yet addressed this problem, preferring to believe that, like the mythical ball field, if you plan it, they will come.

Most of them will not come, and those who do come are not those you want to come. Rosailind Muller, who lives in District 29, is fairly typical of what I mean.

She was told recently about the teams. Although the plan has been in all of the papers and the topic of countless school board meetings, she did not know about leadership teams. I suspect that she does not read the newspapers and neither does her daughter, who is in the fourth grade.

"We get school newsletters and usually the events have already taken place," she said, explaining why she did not know about the teams. "We don’t get any notice.

I’m not sure I would want any parent making decisions about curriculum or what textbook to buy, or whether to hire either a guidance counselor, an assistant principal or three aides. I do know with certainty that I would not want a parent who was so out of touch with what is going on in the schools making those decisions.

In some schools, the community power structure, which sees a way to get back into the game, is complaining that principals have chosen the parent members rather than the parents. That is probably true, because the principals in those schools have only one or two active parents and no parent association, so the principals in those schools have "hijacked" those active parents for the job. The problem is that, in some schools, "parents" who have never been active are now coming to join the teams not for the kids, but for the promise of money. Is this any different from the old school board problem of the 60’s and 70’s? Probably not.

The second problem is a familiar one with those who study community control. Everybody wants his or her cut of the money.

Kids? Education? Sure, but how about the money?

There are millions earmarked for training the School Leadership Teams to function rationally. The big organizations, such as the United Way, have the clout and the wherewithal to do the job, but many small community-based organizations, many of whom have no idea of what this is all about, want the dough. They are fighting for the pot of gold, and they will not give up easily

I am not a doctor, and I would never want to sit as an equal on a board with doctors to choose hospital staff or to decide which diagnostic tools to buy or to decide how specific operations should be performed. I do not have the expertise to do that and I would not make those decisions. Why should a parent with no expertise or training in education make decisions on curriculum or hiring or textbook use?

People say the parallel is not apt, but I think that it is.

We are in for more disappointment. Parents on the leadership teams will hire friends and relatives. They will buy textbooks that serve an agenda rather than those that serve education.

We will probably look back at the reform movement of the late 1990’s and wonder what went wrong.

What will we do then? Local community board sounds like a good idea. Why not?


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