2008-10-17 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

A Look Back Four Years Could Be A Look Into Our Future
By Howard Schwach

This column was originally published in The Wave's June 24, 2005 edition. Now that the question of mayoral control of our public schools is once again up for debate, and it appears that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is on his way to stealing a third term from the voters, I thought that it would be instructive to run it one more time. While I believe that Michael Bloomberg has done many good things for our city, my strongest belief is that he has destroyed both education and parental involvement in our schools.

It was a sad evening.

Picture this. It's the last meeting of the District 27 Community Education Council in a year where everything has changed in public education.

The meeting is being held at PS 114, the school with arguably the greatest parent involvement in the entire district.

Those who have been involved with education for any amount of time will know that, even five years ago, such a meeting of Community School Board 27 would have been fraught with excitement and important, often contentious business.

Principals and assistant principals would be named. Zoning regulations would be changed. Curriculum would be discussed. School-based health clinics would be discussed. Election of officers, often taking several ballots and the clash of two or three factions, would be held. Perhaps, a new district superintendent would be chosen. Decisions would be made that would impact the district's schools for years to come.

The auditorium would be filled with hundreds of parents and community activists. The district's television studio at MS 202 would be taping the meeting for future showing on public television.

Spotted here and there would be people with flowers and balloons, waiting to congratulate those who were to be appointed as administrators, or those who had achieved tenure.

Speakers would be lined up out the door, waiting to speak on important issues impacting their home schools.

The atmosphere at those meetings was electric. There was always a good story for a journalist and the daily papers regularly covered District 27 meetings.

Last week, at the Community Education Council, Bloomberg's successor to the Community School Board, there were five parents in attendance. They were far outnumbered by the region and district staff in attendance.

The agenda consisted entirely of paeans to Dr. Kathleen Cashin and her staff, vetting of her evaluation of regional and district staff and a disingenuous speech about how the scores in the district were so wonderful that fewer summer school seats would be needed than first contemplated.

What changed from ten years ago to now?

At one time, the Community School Boards (CSB) had the power to impact the schools. The Community Education Councils have no power whatsoever except to rubber-stamp the decisions made by the Regional Superintendent and her staff.

That is what passes for parent involvement in the Bloomberg era, a plan that was given life by our state legislators, who thought they were doing the right thing, but effectively brought parental involvement to an end in this city.

I know what you're going to ask. How can I support the Community School Board concept when those boards were so corrupt?

Well, they were and they weren't and we had both kinds here in District 27.

Having lived through it, covered it extensively and having been closely aligned with the Gill Commission in 1989, I believe that I have a unique perspective on what actually happened, and what did not.

Of course, being in the system as a teacher, staff developer and programmer did not hurt the formation of that perspective one bit. As an insider, I had the "beat" on the other reporters, who were all looking at it from the outsidein.

1989! Was it that long ago? Nearly 16 years, almost a quarter of a lifetime.

Most of the people who were involved are now gone or have moved off the public stage.

Today, their names are largely unknown and perhaps they should stay that way. Most of those involved have paid the price. Others have moved on and restructured their lives.

On October 23, 1989, a bombshell was dropped on the district by Austin Camprielio, the chief counsel for the Joint Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools, better known as the Gill Commission for its chairman.

Camprielio sent out a memo on that date that swept through the district's schools like a wildfire.

"No member of Community School Board 27 is to be permitted in the district offices until further notice," the memo said. "No records, tapes, or other mode of storing information may be removed from the district office except by school security personnel acting under the Chancellor's direction."

That same day, James Gill issued a statement that summarized the hearings he was to begin that day.

"What will unfold [at the hearing] is the worst type and most sinister form of nepotism, cronyism and political influence. What you will hear is not merely evidence with respect to somebody asking a person in the system to hire a relative or friend without reference to merit — it goes beyond that. It has to do with a situation where board members, in conversation with the superintendent of a school district tell that superintendent that either he will hire relatives, cronies and political supporters or that superintendent will not be reappointed."

That superintendent was, of course, Colman Genn and the school board was ours. The night before the Gill Commission held its hearings, I was at a fundraiser at St. Camillus for some of the school board members. I knew of the coming hearing because I had been contacted by Gill Commission investigators several months earlier due to the stories I had written for The Rockaway Journal and for The Wave.

I had worked with the investigators developing their cases.

I was sitting in the room when Colman Genn revealed that he had worn a wire during conversations with school board members.

I still have the hundreds of pages of transcripts that came from those conversations.

In my mind, however, the whole sordid deal can be summed up by a conversation I had with a school colleague, and friend, about a week later.

"How do we become administrators now," she asked. "Who do we have to deal with now to get the job?"

Two board members were indicted on counts of bribery, coercion and conspiracy in Queens Supreme Court. They were also indicted in Federal Court on charges of extortion and mail fraud.

Although both faced 25 years on the charges, they pled to lesser charges and received sentences involving only community service.

The Community School Board concept, with the power to impact the schools may have died with that board and with the others that sold principal jobs and took money from those who wanted to become administrators.

After that board was suspended, however, a group of community trustees was appointed.

Many of the trustees were then elected and the school board that came from that election and led by Steve Greenberg was one of the best in the city. We threw the baby out with the bath water and now parents throughout the city are suffering for it.

More than half of these who sat on last year's District 27 CEC decided not to run again.

They were smart.

Only the three major parent association officers at each school are allowed to vote for CEC members. They are arguably the most involved parents in the school. More than half of them opted not to vote in this year's election. That alone should tell you something about the CEC's.

It is sad that parents no longer have a real say.

Perhaps it is time for the state legislature to take a look at what it wrought by giving the mayor his head. Then, they should rectify it.

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