2009-10-23 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Where Have All The School Boards Gone?
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The other shoe dropped on October 23, 1989, exactly 20 years ago today.

Staff reporting to the District 27 office in Ozone Park for the day found a letter posted on the front door.

The letter came from Austin Cam - priello, the chief counsel for the Joint Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools, better known as the Gill Com - mission.

"No member of Community School District 27 is to be permitted in the dis - trict offices until further notice," the letter read. "No records, papers, tapes, or any other method of storing information may be removed from the district office except by school security personnel acting under the chancellor's direction. No agent or any member of Community School Board 27 is to be permitted in the district office until further notice."

So began a long and unhappy incident that came to be know locally as the "The School Board Scandal," that eventually brought two locals to the dock of justice and embarrassed many others.

Commission head James Gill sum - med up the situation the same day.

"A several month undercover investigation into hiring practices in Community School Board revealed that political patronage and racial and religious bias, not merit, motivated hiring decisions. The commission team ed up with Colman Genn, Super in tendent of District 27, to secretly record conversations with various school board members from the district."

I knew it was coming, because I had been working with investigators for the commission for several months. They contacted me because of the columns that I had been writing about the school board, first in the Rockaway Journal and later in The Wave.

In fact, the evening before the Gill Commission held its first public hearing, there was a fundraiser at St. Camillus Church.

School board mover and shaker James Sullivan, who was being honored that evening, came to me and warned me that I had better stop writing about the board, or I would lose my job as a teacher at IS 53.

"You'd better stop this crap, because we can take care of you," he warned. "You'll wind up in some hell hole in Brooklyn."

I told him that I would probably talk to him again the next day, knowing that the commission was to hold its first public hearing, with Genn as its chief witness.

As the transcripts from the wire worn by Genn were released, it became clear that Sullivan's animosity against me had gone on for some time.

All in all, there are 19 separate transcripts, each representing a conversation between Genn and school board members. In one of those transcripts, Sullivan speaks with Genn prior to a school board meeting.

That F——-N Schwach, Myself and Geraldine [Chapey], Gene [Pasternak, school board member and Chapey's husband] and Sam [school board member Granirer] are going down [to The Wave] and we're going to have it out. If [Wave Publisher Leon Locke] doesn't pull him, we're going to pull about a third of their advertising. Every Irish bar, tavern and business, anything in there. I already called about 30 major advertisers and they're all ready to pull [their ads] if he doesn't get rid of Schwach."

I was the least of their problems, however.

The transcripts show that several members of the school board were holding Genn's position hostage, tell - ing him clearly that he would not be rehired unless he went along with their personal hiring demands - and those demands were often based on political, racial and religious considerations.

All of the conversations below come from those official transcripts.

For example, from a conversation held on February 6 at a meeting be - tween Genn, Sullivan, Granirer, and school board member Irving Schwartz.

The meeting had been called by the school board members to discuss up - coming administrative appointments at schools both on the mainland and in Rockaway.

Genn had recommended a black woman to lead a mainland school.

Granirer: Who is that? Is she black?

Genn: Yeah, she'a part of that …

Granirer: I'm hearing,.. I'm getting very concerned about this. I feel like I'm in District 4 here, and this is not District 4. Uh. I'll shoot straight with you.

Genn: Mmm-Hmm

Granirer: If they're qualified people … and what it's saying to me is you're taking people from 246, 210, and they're all blacks and probably 106 you'd want the acting AP to be a black … I got problems with this, and I'll tell you why. Because they're not my friends in this district. And, believe it or not, Mr. Genn, they're not your friends, whether you know it or not.

Later at the meeting, Genn realizes that Sullivan had taken all of the black candidates off the list

Genn: Jimmy, you're not going to take all the black people off the list, because …

Sullivan: Yes. If you are going to put them on, we're going to take them out. Yeah, if there was movement to play, I would play. You know what I mean? But I can't [unintelligible].

On September 13, 1989, Genn and Sullivan were sitting in Genn's car outside of 107-10 Shore Front Parkway.

They were discussing Sullivan's demands that more Irish teachers be made supervisors in the district.

Sullivan: (whispering) If I thought, if I thought that they were really hurting instruction, wanting a whole F——G piece that would make a big, major difference, I wouldn't go for it. Honestly, at the end of the day, I'm a political leader, that's why I'm here.

Genn: Yeah.

Sullivan: And I make sure my people get F——-G jobs. When I came into this district, there were three Irish supervisors out of 157 people. Now, when the blacks come up, they say, well, don't tell us there aren't enough blacks that are qualified. That's true. But don't expect me to believe that of my own people as well.

On December 1, both Sullivan and Granirer were indicted in federal court on charge of extortion and mail fraud.

On the same day, both Sullivan and Granirer were indicted in Queens Supreme Court on charges of bribery, conspiracy, and coercion.

You get the picture. More Next week from the official Gill Commission transcripts and how the school board scandal impacted the rest of the city as well.

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