2003-05-09 / Columnists

From the

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk By Howard Schwach

What school governance has come down to is a war of words and what those words legally mean.

The words are wri tten into the school governance law that was passed by the state legislature more than 20 years ago.

For example, that law says, "a superintendent in his or her district…"

To Steve Sanders and Frank Padvan and others who want to retain the fiefdom that they have enjoyed since the law was passed, that means that there has to be a superintendent for each of the "at least 30 districts" that were set up at that time.

The new plan calls for ten supervising administrators, some with as many as three or four of the old districts under their control.

The mayor says that he has not done away with the 32 present districts, that they still exist, at least on paper. That is a legal fiction, and it is a shame that Bloomberg has to resort to a legal fiction in order to reorganize the schools. In fact, the 32 districts no longer have a superintendent, a staff or a role in running the schools. They exist in name only, each now part of a larger organizational unit called a Region.

District 27, for example, is now part of Region Five, joining two Brooklyn districts under the direction of Kathleen Cashin.

Cashin will have several "Instructional Supervisors, to actually run clusters of ten or twelve schools.

Rumor has it that Marty Weinstein (the present deputy supe for District 27) and Michelle Lloyd Bey (the present supe) will become instructional supervisors for Rockaway schools, as will Rita Geramitta, who was formerly a principal in this district.

Sanders, who is the head of the Assembly’s Education Committee and a powerhouse in the education field, admits that "there is no single line in the law that requires a superintendent in each district. He says, however, "that there is an assumption from the wording that does not have to be written into the law."

"The city’s interpretation was invented to support the contention that they didn’t do away with the school districts," Sanders says. "They couldn’t do away with the districts, because that would be blatantly illegal under present law."

School Chancellor Joel Klein argues that the 32 districts still exist, as the law requires.

"The regional superintendents are an administrative change," he told the legislature at a recent hearing. "The change is designed to make the schools more manageable."

"The schools are failing," Klein said. "It seems to me that you should be supporting the changes that we have implemented."

Sanders told Klein that he was off base.

"It seems to me that many of the things you want to do are laudable," Sanders told Klein. "You are flouting the law that we negotiated. Things are being exercised by the mayor and the chancellor that have nothing to do with the law. The end does not always justify the means."

Assemblyman Mark Weprin told Klein that he would like to see the districts kept intact.

"We are going to learn over the next few months whether your plan violated the law," Weprin said. "Our lawsuit might win, then where are we?"

"I don’t want to see it come to that," Weprin added. "I don’t want to see you harden your heart. All this criticism could change if you keep the school districts as districts."

What does this all mean for parents and students?

It probably means a certain amount of chaos in September, and it certainly means that parents will have fewer places to go to address problems with their children’s schools.

While Region Five will maintain offices at the old District 27 office in Ozone Park, it is not clear just who will be there to answer questions and resolve conflicts.

Under the new plan, there will be a parent coordinator in each school. That person should be the first contact with parents.

That parent coordinator, however, will be chosen by the principal. How that fact plays out with parents is still unclear.

In fact, the parent coordinator need not be a parent. The coordinators, who will earn between $30 and $39 thousand a year, need only be a high school graduate.

The parent’s association at the school will interview three to five finalists and will make recommendations to the principal, who will have the final say.

When Klein was asked why he had chosen to allow the principal the final say, he told reporters, "This way, you insure that the principal and the parent coordinator can work well together."

Parents are not happy with the process.

"The parent coordinator will keep his or her job depending on how well that person satisfies the principal, not the parents," one Rockaway parent activist who asked to remain anonymous, told me. "That is not what we had in mind when we heard about the new position."

What the parents want is an advocate for the rights of their children in the school. They want a person they can go to with problems who can then go to the administrative staff or the teacher and resolve those problems. They are not sure that a person beholden to the principal for his or her job will be able to do that.

Many of them would rather see the community school board retained in some form, with some added parental input. They want something with teeth and the perception is that the chancellor’s plan will leave them toothless absent the local school boards.

The District 27 school board has done a fantastic job ever since the old board was suspended more than ten years ago and the chancellor appointed an interim board.

Not every district board has done as well. There were boards that were accused of cronyism, as our local board was at one point. There were boards that actually asked for bribes from those seeking administrative positions.Our recent board has done none of those things.

It is a fact that locals need someplace to go to be heard.

School board members were that source. The district office did not always want to hear the voices of parents. The school board provided the bridge between parents and the district.

It was not perfect, but it worked more often than not.

Now, there will be no school board, no district office.

They will be replaced by parent coordinators and parent committees, by regional superintendents and a central force at Tweed Courthouse.

How will that work?

Nobody is sure.

One thing is sure, however. We are in for a bumpy ride until all of the questions are answered and the system is tweaked.

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