2002-02-09 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

Ten years ago this week, the Special Commissioner of Investigations for the Board of Education issued a report called, "An Investigation Into Alleged Misconduct Compromising The Integrity of the Selection of A Superintendent for School District 27."

It was not exactly a big seller, except perhaps here at The Wave and in the offices at District 27.

The report recommended the removal of board member Muriel Russel and censured board chairperson James Sanders. It also tarred a number of other board members who were not accused of wrongdoing.

I wrote at the time in School Scope, "If you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of the suspended school board."

A little history is necessary here, especially since the board's suspension was now so long ago that many do not remember what happened.

That school board has been suspended for playing fast and loose with Superintendent Colman Genn, for playing racial politics with administrative jobs, for forcing those who wanted to be administrators to attend expensive parties and fundraisers, to carry petitions for those seeking school board seats.

Two board members were eventually indicted on federal charges of coercion and of using the mails for illegal purposes. The other seven members of the board were suspended as well and a team of three "Trustees," all board of ed functionaries from 110 Livingston Street, were put in the board's place. Eventually, a "Trustee Board," made up of local residents chosen by the Chancellor, replaced those trustees.

Many of those on the trustee board were then elected to places on the board in the next election. It is that board that drew the censure and suspension.

Russel was removed from the board for calling Sanders and telling him that she would vote for Dr. Beverly Hall, a black woman, as superintendent (something that Sanders fervently supported) only if Sanders would step down as chairperson and insure that Martha Dana, another board member got the job. Sanders was censured for not reporting her call.

Other board members were cited for "seeking to inject racial politics into the process," and for "attempting to profit from racial politics."

The Reverend Charles Norris, a supporter of another candidate, Celestine Miller (who was eventually booted from the superintendence of District 29) for the job reportedly insinuated himself into the process by telling investigators that Hall and Sanders had a "personal relationship." Something that later proved to be false. He obviously hoped that he could help Miller to get the job by discrediting Hall, but Miller was such a weak candidate that, although three people voted for her in the first vote, there was never any hope that she could win.

Things were eventually straightened out and Hall became arguably the worst superintendent that District 27 ever had (perhaps I overstate that. Marvin Aaron is right up there as well). She later went on to become a central board administrator and then went to New Jersey and, eventually, further south. If my memory serves, she was put over the top by Steve Greenberg, who today is the president of the board.

Why bring up this ancient history today? Because the mayor and others in city and state government are looking to do away with local school boards entirely and because the local school boards are attempting to tell the public just how much they are needed to insure that parents have a say in the educational process.

There were high hopes for local school board when they were first created in the wake of the Great School Strike in the late 1960's, when teacher's struck the schools for nearly three months over the issue of "community control."

It quickly became clear that the elected school boards were filled with local politicians who saw the boards as a chance for lots of graft by selling administrative jobs and for giving district jobs to cronies.

Our school board never sold jobs. Many of the board, however, forced would-be administrators to attend $100 a plate dinners and to undergo other indignities.

There is lots of evidence that it controlled the number of minorities who got jobs in the district and that it took jobs out of schools and placed those jobs in the district office as no-show jobs for friends and relatives.

Several school board members in other districts had already been arrested for various crimes against humanity when Col Genn wore a wire and captured the true venality of our school board. That resulted in the Gill Commission and the indictments of two members of the board.

After that debacle, a new governance bill took away the local board's power to hire administrators as well as its power to control the budget.

All that was left to the local boards was the power to hire a superintendent (with the advice and consent of the chancellor) and to rezone the district.

Now, Bloomberg wants to do away with even that small sinecure. Whose fault is that? Much of the fault has to lie with the way the local boards did business ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Politicians have long memories.

Our local board, at least in the past ten years, has been one of the best in the city. It has worked hard for kids and for parents, and I say that even though I did not agree with many of its decisions.

Given all of the past discretions and the fact that the board now has little power, I still believe that the boards are necessary as a touchstone between parents and the bureaucracy.

Think about it for a moment. The local boards provide a conduit for information. Board members are accosted in the community, shopping at the supermarket, at board meetings, at dinner, at the beach. There is somebody there for parents and other community people to access.

If it were not for the boards, then parents would have to call the central board. Try that sometime and let me know how it works out.

The boards cost little enough and they provide a necessary service, even in their truncated form. Perhaps the way boards are chosen needs to be changed. Only three or four percent of the populace votes in school board elections. Perhaps their duties need to be tweaked. There are lots of possibilities short of throwing away the baby with the bath water.

We have to work to find those possibilities before the politicians do their work and destroy the one lifeline that parents have to their child's education.

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