2001-04-28 / Columnists

School Scope 0428

School Scope 0428

Politics has always been the bane of education in this city and it is getting worse, not better.

When the decentralization law was first passed in the 1960’s the law was seen as a wide-spread recognition that schools somehow needed to be removed as far as possible from political interference.

The hope was that local boards would insulate the local schools from the political power structure.

Hindsight would allow us to laugh at that strange notion today, but in the heady days of the 1960’s that seemed to make sense.

I first came to the school system in 1965, fresh from the Navy and ready to mold young minds.

One of the teachers at JHS 198 had just been fired, but they would not tell me why, and I was given his position in early February. I had five Mathematics (even though my license is in Social Studies) classes, one being the brightest kids in the school, one being the lowest exponent class in the school and the other three being "in the middle."

In those days, JHS 198 was a middle class school and I had many kids who went on to college and successful careers. I even had one who later was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but that is another story.

I had trouble with one class and went to the principal for help (the AP was a prig who demanded that teachers stand at attention when he entered a room). The principal was of little help and I later found out that he had never been a teacher. He lived in the area and bought furniture for city schools. In the last few years of his career the politicians, as a reward for faithful service, appointed him as principal of the school. Right there and then I learned that politics played a large part in school decision-making.

Then came community control and the long school strike of 1968. Teachers and everybody else in the system knew that nothing would change as long as elections, even local elections for school board members, were part of the community control package.

We were right.

In many cases, school board members were no more than stooges for local politicians and political organizations were used to get out the vote for particular candidates. Those boards then did the bidding of the politician who helped them get elected.

Administrators were chosen based not on merit, but on loyalty to the party or to the politician.

Teachers got jobs if they knew the "right person" to go to.

All of the parties involved began to realize what a cash cow the school system could be if it were played correctly.

A few school boards began to sell administrative positions. You could be a principal for $25 thousand, an assistant principal for a bargain $10 thousand. I had a good friend who went from laboratory assistant to principal in that way. This did not happen in District 27.

Other school boards were subtler. They held fundraiser parties and those who wanted to become teachers or administrators had to attend. Two or three dinners a year at $100 per plate often meant a nice "salary" for a school board member. In addition, candidates for a school job were required to carry petitions for the school board for the incumbents. I remember one teacher, who is now the principal of a prestigious high school, coming to Bayswater to get petitions signed. I knew that he lived in Nassau County and I asked him why he was doing it. "I want to become an assistant principal," he told me. That explained it all. Parties and petitions were big in this district.

The day after the Gill Commission revealed cronyism and racism in this district and suspended the entire school board; one distraught would-be administrator who I knew very well and had worked with for more than a dozen years came to me almost in tears.

"How do I go about being an administrator," she asked. "Who do I have to go to now that the school board is gone?"

When the corruption, cronyism and racism of the school boards was shown to be rampant in many areas of the city, there was an overreaction on the part of the legislature and much of the power of the school boards was taken away and given to the chancellor and to the local school superintendent.

School boards could name administrators. Now, the superintendent had that power.

School boards could set budget priorities. Now, the superintendent had that power.

School boards could hire superintendents. Now, they did so with the "advice and consent" of the chancellor, which means they have no power at all.

The new governance law was supposed to "take the politics out of the school."

All it did was transfer that political power from the school boards to school superintendents and the chancellor, who are basically controlled by the political power structure.

Witness the spectacle of the last central school board election for board president.

One member sells out and gives his vote to the mayor’s representative – a woman who shares the mayor’s zeal in "blowing up the system." Then another member is vilified by the borough president who chose her because she did not vote for the mayor’s choice. BP Claire Shulman is offered incentives by the mayor to drop Terry Thomson and Shulman agrees to do so.

Thomson has been good for the Queens schools, for Rockaway. That she will be removed because she did not back the mayor’s candidate for the presidency is a sure sign that we are headed in the wrong direction.

No Politics! Sure!

Then the legislature, the body that started all of the problems in the first place, vows to do away with school boards and to set up a system whereby a Commissioner of Education accountable to the mayor runs the system.

Sounds non-political to me!

There have been times that I did not like individual school board members and there have been times when they certainly did not like me.

That does not mean that the board does not serve a purpose as a local entrée into the world of school politics and school problems.

We need that local connection.

The school boards should not go. The mayor and his cronies should go and so should the idea that political control will make the schools better, not worse.

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