Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union



On the Gowanus, Say 'No' to Superfund

Photo (cc) Bryan Bruchman
Would Superfund status radically slow down the commercial development of the waterfront?

The one thing that everyone with an interest in the Gowanus Canal can agree on is that it needs to be cleaned up.

But the three important questions are: (1) what needs to be done, (2) why, and (3) when? It is the city and not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that has the correct answers to these critical questions: (1) address the sewage overflow issue, (2) because it is the contaminant most affecting quality of life, and (3) do it now.

The city's plan would address the current leading contaminant of the Gowanus Canal that most affects the quality of life of those who live and work in the area -- the raw sewage that runs into the canal when the combined (storm and sanitary) sewer system overflows. Upgrading and modernizing the flushing tunnel and pumping station, as well as selective dredging and capping of exposed sediments, can begin under the city's plan this fall; the city has allocated at least $175 million to accomplish this urgent goal.

(For an opposing viewpoint on cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, see Brooklyn's Lavender Lake Needs Superfund.)

This work, combined with the city's requirement that private developers build new storm water systems when they develop properties along the canal, will dramatically reduce the sewage overflows that are today the primary source of pollution of the canal. In addition -- just as a Superfund designation would do -- the city will compel the parties responsible for the decades-long pollution of the canal to contribute money to finance additional dredging of the sediments at no expense to taxpayers. The city, officials have said, will work collaboratively with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to complete this cleanup. Rejecting a counterproductive Superfund designation will not mean excluding the federal government from a central role in the cleanup.

Taking Care of Sewage

The chief concerns of area residents are the odors and unsightly floatables in the canal caused by combined sewer overflows. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency has no intention (affirmed publicly by its Region 2 Director Walter Mugdan) to address the issue of sewage in the canal. The agency plans to dredge only the sediments at the bottom of the canal. While this is an important objective, the cost to remove all of these sediments is staggering and, notably, these sediments are not affecting area residents.

A Superfund designation could put on hold the city's efforts to address the important sewage issue. And given the Superfund's track record at other polluted waterways, even the sediments may not be removed for 25 years or more -- witness last week's news that, after a quarter-century, the dredging of the Superfund-designated Hudson River is just now set to begin!

Let's be clear: Sediments at the bottom of the canal pose no threat to human health unless humans come in contact with those sediments on a regular basis. That would happen only if an individual purposely and repeatedly dove to the bottom of the waterway. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency plans to ignore the sewage that runs into the canal during heavy rainfall and instead spend $400 million on dredging sediments at the bottom of the canal that are not impacting people.

Plans Put on Hold

More broadly -- based upon empirical evidence from other similar Superfund designations of waterways that have multiple parties responsible for their pollution -- what path would this cleanup be likely to follow if the Gowanus was designated a Superfund site?

The first step is for the federal government to conduct analyses of the condition of the canal. The Environmental Protection Agency has some seed money to accomplish this. During this period all plans for city remediation of the canal as well as private investment would be put on hold because no one would be willing to spend money until the agency's expectations for the cleanup are clear.

Further, during this time it will be unlikely that government authorities would be willing to issue permits for anyone to do work along the canal. So, there would be no private investment to create new infrastructure that would separate storm water from the combined sewer system. The city's plans for the pumping station, flushing tunnel and selective dredging and capping of exposed sediments to be performed by the Army Corps of Engineers also would likely be stalled. As such, there would be no improvement in the quality of life for nearby residents and workers because the sewage and exposed sediments would not be addressed. In fact, the $15 million budgeted by the Army Corps of Engineers would be rescinded if a Superfund designation were to occur, city officials have said.

Years of Lawsuits

Also at this time, the federal government will be looking for "potentially responsible parties" to determine who may be liable for past pollution. This is necessary because the agency does not have money to fund a cleanup of the canal. The federal government would sue these "parties" to raise this money. Decades, yes decades, of litigation would ensue, because those that are sued would just turn around and sue others to defray their costs.

The Environmental Protection Agency will not come up with $400 million by going after private parties. There are no Exxon/Mobils or General Electrics involved here -- no deep pockets. Take a look at most of the property owners and businesses currently on the canal and who have been there historically. It is impossible to imagine how the agency could suggest that it could raise $400 million them.

However, the potential does exist to raise the money by going after the city and the utility, National Grid. Should the federal government sue the city and National Grid to raise the money that it is unable to obtain otherwise (arguing they are potentially liable parties) we would all be able to thank the agency for higher taxes and utility charges when the city and National Grid seek to recoup these monies. (National Grid took over Brooklyn Union Gas, whose coal gasification plant has been blamed for some of the canal's pollution.) And while this litigation is going on, the city would not be able to pursue its current cleanup plans and National Grid would cease the voluntary cleanup it has initiated as a part of the state's brownfields program.

While the analyses grind on and the lawsuits and countersuits rage, the condition of the canal would deteriorate. Twenty years from now, the area would likely look like it does today -- or worse. One only has to look into other Superfund projects like the Hudson and Passaic rivers. Both of these were designated as Superfund sites in the 1980s; neither has seen any cleanup activity commence in more than 25 years.

So let's have the city, state, and private sector -- working with the Environmental Protection Agency -- get going on the cleanup without all of the wasted time and endless litigation that inevitably accompany a Superfund designation.

David Von Spreckelsen is a senior vice president of Toll Brothers and a member of the Clean Gowanus Now! Coalition - a group of two-dozen developers and property owners along the canal. †Toll Brothers received ULURP approval for a zoning change for a mixed-use project along the canal from the City Council earlier this year. The project will include 450 market rate and inclusionary housing units.

Brooklyn's Lavender Lake Needs Superfund

Photo (cc) Pro-Zak

After almost 150 years of industrial use and decades of raw sewage discharges from New York City's combined sewer system, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation's most contaminated bodies of water. The putrid sediments at the bottom of the canal contain PCBs, heavy metals, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, sewage solids and coal tar wastes. Adding to this toxic legacy, the manufactured gas plants, cement factories, oil refineries, tanneries, chemical plants and other industries that have called the canal home also have left behind underground plumes of pollution and contaminated the land and the groundwater, which continues to leach toxins into the canal.

On April 8, 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to include the Gowanus Canal in the federal Superfund Program, which cleans up hazardous sites. This followed a request from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which acknowledged that cleaning up the Gowanus would be too complicated for the state to handle. Soon after the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his opposition to the agency's proposal, saying the city could handle the job.

(For an opposing viewpoint on cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, see On the Gowanus, Say 'No' to Superfund.)

How Superfund Works

The federal Superfund program was created in 1980 in response to public outrage over the threat that toxic waste sites such as Love Canal and Valley of the Drums posed to human health and the environment. Superfund provides the EPA with authority to respond to releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment and to clean up many of the country's most contaminated sites.

About 70 percent of site cleanups are paid for by parties thought to be responsible for the pollution. EPA has power under Superfund to force the responsible parties to clean up a site or risk penalties, including having to pay EPA three times the cost of any remediation financed by the trust. However, if the responsible party cannot be found or has gone bankrupt, the Superfund trust can pay for the remediation of highly contaminated sites. Once a site is listed on a National Priorities List, the EPA can use money from the fund to fully investigate the extent of contamination, perform a remediation feasibility study and work on the site. Unfortunately, the Superfund trust is no longer funded by taxes on polluting industries and now relies on $1.2 billion in yearly congressional funding.

A Comprehensive Cleanup

After decades of environmental abuse, the Gowanus Canal is poised to leave behind its history as the "lavender lake," so called because of the color industrial waste tinged its waters, and be redeveloped into a community offering, housing, retail and recreational opportunities. With input from many active community organizations, the current redevelopment proposals envision neighborhoods focused on a clean canal with parks, a public promenade, and increased access to and use of the water.

With this future as a backdrop, the Gowanus Canal must be cleaned up in a comprehensive and thorough manner. Various individual plans address some of the environmental problems in the canal and surrounding area, but none of these proposals deals with the contamination in the canal itself or seeks a comprehensive solution to the continued leaching of pollutants from contaminated sites into the canal.

Several sites in the area are in the process of being cleaned up under state Department of Environmental Conservation supervision, including the future Whole Foods site at Third Street and Third Avenue, the Toll Brothers site on Bond Street, and the Public Place site at Fifth and Smith streets. The city also has plans to reduce the volume of combined sewer overflows that enter the canal and to rehabilitate the flushing tunnel that pushes cleaner water into the canal from New York Harbor.

If the Gowanus Canal is listed on Superfund's National Priority List, these projects will continue under state supervision as planned. However, the EPA has stated that the most important task of any cleanup would be to stop the upland leaching of pollution into the canal. In addition, according to the agency, existing clean-up projects must be coordinated with the remediation plan for the canal. This coordination may delay some development projects.

The ultimate goal must be a comprehensive and thorough cleanup of the canal, rather than a piecemeal approach by state and city agencies with different priorities. While not a perfect solution, a Superfund designation will provide the best chance for a thorough cleanup of the canal, so that this unique waterway can serve as the centerpiece of a revitalized neighborhood where residents can enjoy the canal itself and the surrounding land, free of concerns over the public health threat of any toxic pollutants lurking beneath the surface.

The Lowe's Home Improvement store on Second Avenue serves as an example of the dangers associated with cleaning up contaminated land without comprehensive planning. The Lowe's was built on the site of a former manufactured gas plant and was remediated under the State Brownfields Program. Although Lowe's conducted a cleanup prior to starting construction, published reports state that Lowe's did not address the entire site and that coal tar contamination has now migrated toward the supermarket next door. Without a comprehensive cleanup plan for the canal there is a danger that other sites will not be adequately remediated, leading to the continued pollution of land, groundwater and the canal.

The City's Plan

When Bloomberg announced his opposition to listing the canal as a Superfund site, he indicated that the city would come up with an alternative plan that would achieve virtually the same goal, but without the perceived stigma that "Superfund" carries. The administration has not released final details but promises that its alternative will be supervised by the EPA, will study the canal's contamination to the same extent that Superfund would and will achieve a cleanup to the same standards. The city has also proposed having the parties responsible for the contamination pay for a portion of the cleanup and is seeking funding for dredging of the canal from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

With a price tag for the cleanup that could reach $300 million to $400 million, it remains uncertain whether responsible parties would pick up part of the costs and whether money from the Army Corps would provide sufficient funding. Any cleanup that does not list the canal on the National Priority List would not allow the EPA or anyone else to use money from the Superfund trust to study the extent of contamination, pay for cleanup if necessary or compel the original polluters to do the cleanup themselves.

Although the city has provided few specifics about its proposal, any alternative to Superfund would lose the tools and funding of the Superfund program, while gaining few if any advantages. This is why Superfund presents the best mechanism for retiring the Gowanus Canal's "lavender lake" stigma once and for all.

Joshua S. Verleun is a staff attorney at Riverkeeper, Inc.

The Great School Debate

Gotham Gazette image by YH Huang
Has mayoral control of schools saved our classrooms? Or should Bloomberg stay out?

With the law establishing mayoral control of the New York City school system set to expire at the end of June, parents, educators and other concerned New Yorkers have widely varying opinions over the successes and failures of the current system and whether it should remain as is, be tweaked or totally rehauled. On May 11, Citizens Union Foundation, Gotham Gazette's publisher, along with the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, held a forum on the issue.

Moderated by Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch, it featured:

Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director, Make the Road NY

Rev. David Brawley, co-chair, East Brooklyn Congregations

Joel Klein, chancellor, New York City Department of Education

Monica Major, president, Community Education Council, District 11

Michael Mulgrew, chief operating officer, United Federation of Teachers

Joseph Viteritti, former executive director, Commission on School Governance

The following are edited comments excerpted from their discussion.

Who's In Charge?

"To me, the most essential feature of mayoral control is that the mayor chooses a majority of members of the school board. ... In a few places where they call it mayoral control, I wouldn't call it mayoral control. For example in Oakland, the mayor picks three members of a 10-person board. I don't think that's control. In Baltimore, mayors share that with the governor. I don't think that's control." -- Joseph Viteritti

"The question of governance is fundamentally whether the mayor will have the same authority over the school system that he or she has over safety, over health, over finances. The present structure is sound and I worry that, as we try to improve the system, we undermine it and create divided authority. The mayor has to be able to support a majority of the members [of the Panel for Education Policy] and they serve at his pleasure. No terms." -- Joel Klein

"The form of mayoral control we have in New York is the most extreme. You don't have a space for parents and students and stakeholders to participate in the debate." --Ana Marie Archila

"It's not a burden for a chancellor to have to make a persuasive case [to a board with a majority of mayoral appointees]. That's an opportunity to make your case." -- Viteritti

"We're New Yorkers. We like to debate. That's' what we do. In our proposal, we have 14 members on the [Panel on Educational Policy]. Every policy should have some debate. The mayor would only have to swing two votes. If there is an issue, isn't it better as a city if we have some debate?" -- Michael Mulgrew

"I am old enough to remember Mayor Giuliani and young enough to know I'll have kids in school when there will be mayors I don't like." --Archila

"We have got to be bold. A mayor may or may not be bold, but if he or she doesn't have the authority, thee is going to be special interest capture." -- Klein

The Bottom Line

"It's a not a question of how we hold the mayor accountable. The discussion should be how do we insure students who historically have fallen through the cracks do not continue to fall through the cracks." -- Archila

"If we had this debate under the old system there would be no room because everyone who made a paychecks on the backs of our children would want to be here." -- David Brawley

"Not a single person on the panel has said we want to go back to the old system. We want to move forward. Everyone here has the best interests of the children at heart. We are all trying to do the best thing for out children and the city as a whole." -- Mulgrew

A Place for Parents

"We need to make sure our public institutions can hear the public." -- Archila

"One of the things that the old board did well -- and there weren't many of them --- was force a public conversation." --Viteritti

"Parents come out to complain, and they're frustrated, Some don't have the resources to properly advocate for their children." -- Monica Major

"When you have parents, teachers and students working together, then you have a successful school. [At the hearings the UFT held,] parents in every neighborhoods no matter what the demographics said 'we feel shut out of the system'." -- Mulgrew

"People think trying to participate in the current system is not a good use of their time." -- Viteritti

"In the old days, you had the debate but no results." -- Brawley

"We're the only system that does a parent poll. A few people claim they speak to parents. I like to listen to all of them." -- Klein

We should make sure that when parents organize, they're not treated as a special interest." -- Archila

"I don't think parents are a special interest, but people kid themselves when they say they speak for parents." -- Klein

Looking at the Numbers

"This is the Mark Twain, lies, damns lies and statistics part of the program." -- Mulgrew

"To use [test scores] to evaluate a governance system is not a good idea." -- Viteritti

"In East New York, the percentage of student passing the state reading tests is up by 16 points. One reason that is happening is the chancellor is willing to make hard decisions." --Brawley

"Our students are closing in on the rest of the state. After a decade of stagnation in this city, we are making real change." -- Klein

"These grades [on the school report cards] do not match what is going on in the city. They are based on a metric you can't explain to parents." -- Major

An Outside Eye

"[Oversight by the Independent Budget Office is needed] to make sure we all have information about performance and to make sure the money goes where it really needs to go." -- Archila

"I'm confident about the data...and I'm happy to have an outside body investigate." -- Klein

To Tweak or to Tinker?

"Mayoral control creates a capacity for change that didn't exist before. I support a strong system of mayoral control, but it can also have checks and balances." -- Viteritti

"I hope the system remains as it is. Tweaking is one thing. Tinkering is another." -- Brawley

"What we hope happens is that New York City has a better system because it can always be better, We are talking about Albany here, so it would leave it up to anyone to tell me what is going to happen." -- Mulgrew

"The state legislature is trying to figure it out. I hope their debate is as robust as our conversation." -- Archila

"This is as robust a debate as can possibly happen." -- Klein

In Charge and Unaccountable

I am a grassroots kind of guy. I believe that the best systems of governance welcome the participation of stakeholders. Good governance is open, and has debate and dialogue, clear lines of accountability and reasonable grievance procedures for resolving differences. Mayoral control of the city's public schools has not achieved these basic goals.

Additionally, because the chancellor is answerable only to the mayor, the children of New York City have, in some ways, lost their strongest advocate. No longer independent of the mayor's budgetary priorities, the chancellor's willingness to fight for school funding has been compromised by the ability of the mayor to hire and fire the chancellor and by the mayor's relationship with the governor and state Legislature.

Arguably, the best features of mayoral control should be on the business side (the Department of Education has the largest budget of any city department at more than $18 billion). In fact in several cities that have adopted mayoral control, the impetus was financial accountability. We should see efficiencies in procurement and operations. What I am seeing from my dual perspective as chairman of the New York City Council's Education Committee and as the lead plaintiff in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which stimulated the recent influx of education funding, is a distressing mix of privatization of basic functions and no-bid contracts.

For example, two and a half years ago I chaired a council hearing that explored a number of no bid contracts entered into by the Department of Education. We looked hard at the $15.8 million contract that went to Alvarez & Marsal, a global consulting firm based in New York City, to find cost savings through restructuring. That firm's recommendations on school transportation were implemented in the dead of winter in the coldest weather we'd had in a long while, leaving kids standing outdoors in below freezing temperatures while the kinks in the new plan were worked out. Some of my constituents complained, and rightly so, about glaring errors like student pick-up times scheduled after the start of the school day. It was an outrage.

And what were the long-term savings brought by this no bid contract? It's very hard to say because of the lack of transparency in the department's budget. I can only tell you that the department's transportation budget went up $52.5 million between fiscal year 2008 and the current fiscal year.

The City Council looked hard at that contract, but there was little we could do. Since education law is STATE law, the Department of Education always says that it is accountable only to the state. Quite frankly, I don't think the Assembly members and senators from upstate counties should really be that involved -- at the detail level -- in the oversight of the New York City schools. City residents are the stakeholders here, and city government is where oversight, compliance and enforcement should rest.

Accountable to No One

In 2005 the City Council passed legislation that required the education department to submit an annual report on the number of substandard or temporary classrooms and the number of students in them. After initial compliance, we received a letter saying that the department would not provide the data.

The Department of Education does not comply with state mandates either. Classes are not supposed to be held in rooms without windows. Yet 18 percent of principals responding to a recent survey (you can view the responses here) indicated that one or more classrooms in their schools were windowless. And this was no small sample – these principals represent 41 percent of the city's student body. Physical education instruction is provided for less than one hour per week in 47 percent of the responding schools. Our schools are not up to state mandated instructional standards in art, science or health either. When I asked the Department of Education how many classes received health instruction from uncertified teachers, it could not answer even though there were only 200 certified instructors for this subject in the entire system. But no sanctions or reprimands are issued when the department fails to meet the state standards.

Sometimes this failure is colossal. As the council readies to vote on the Department of Education's new $11.3 billion capital plan, it is worth pondering how our current governance structure deals with the department's refusal to meet state standards.

Contracting Excellence

Back in 1991, when Michael Rebell and I started the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, overcrowded schools and large classes were characteristic of New York City, particularly in Community School District 6 where I was the school board president. I now represent parts of the same area in the City Council.

Fifteen years later, the lawsuit at last produced something tangible: the Contract for Excellence. In this historic agreement the state requires that the city's five-year capital plans be aligned with the standards specified in the Contract for Excellence.

But currently, the five-year capital plan is not aligned with the Contract for Excellence Standards. For example, the Contract for Excellence agreement calls for classes of 23 students in middle schools and high schools; the capital plan provides for classes of 28 as its benchmark for upper elementary and middle schools and sets 30 as the high school cap, falling far short of the contract standard and way below the recommendations put forth by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The department consistently puts two teachers in one classroom and calls it "class size reduction."

Now, I have what I consider to be a sound, basic education. I didn't go to Harvard, and I don't have a graduate degree, but I am educated enough to know that "reducing teacher-student ratio through team teaching strategies" is NOT the same thing as reducing class size.

When the Council is asked to approve a plan that violates state law, we are between a rock and a hard place: a NO vote stops all capital work; a YES vote approves a plan that violates state law. Clearly this is not only an inadequate capital plan, but an inadequate governance structure that encourages the Council to be a rubber stamp for mayoral failure to adhere to state law. But how many council members have the political will to completely stop all school repairs and construction in order to force the mayor to comply with state law?

Governance should not be dependent on the popularity or personality of an individual office holder. The quality of governance should not be judged solely by the test results or graduation rates it produces (and there is some evidence that these numbers are suspect). It needs to be a system that also produces excellent, motivated teachers and supervisors; a system that produces engaged students; it must endure changes in demographics and weather dips in the economy -- what's going to happen to all the basics that are being funded by private contributions now? And most importantly, it must answer to the constituents it serves and not the single vision or political fortunes of the mayor of the city of New York.

I urge the state to move toward a governance system that rests on the broadest possible base with the greatest degree of accountability, transparency and community involvement.

Councilmember Robert Jackson has represented the neighborhoods of West Harlem; parts of Washington Heights, Inwood, Central Harlem and Morningside Heights since 2002. He is the chair of the council's Education Committee and co-founder of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. He is also the parent of three daughters, all of who attended PS/IS 187 in Community School District 6, where he served on the Community School Board for fifteen years.

Making Joel Klein Behave

When I was an assistant principal a teacher often would send a kid into my office when he was misbehaving. I'd threaten to bring his mother up to school, and he'd promise not to be "bad" anymore.

For six years the Joel Klein administration at the Department of Education has been promising not to be "bad" anymore.

Last November a constituent came into my community office. Her son had a disability and had been in special ed classes his whole school career. When he started high school, he was not put into a Special Education class. So, he was failing all his classes and getting into increasing difficulties. When she complained to the school she was told there was "no room in the special ed classes." She called the city's "311" non-emergency hotline and was told the same thing.

After three decades as a teacher and assistant principal, I knew who to call -- and did -- and the school reluctantly placed the student in the correct class.

Another parent applied to the new small schools housed in what had previously been a large high school across the street from her home, but her child wasn't accepted to any of the schools. "Too bad," said the department. "You can appeal, but we rarely uphold appeals, and, it's only a 45-minute bus ride to the assigned school.'

When my colleague, Linda Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan, asked a Klein staffer why the department failed to plan for the sharp increase in kids entering school, the staffer went on and on about demographic studies. Linda responded, "Why didn't you count baby strollers?"

These incidents, and other like them, point to an overall problem with the city's running of its school system.

As a member of the State Assembly, serving on the Education Committee, I should be able to communicate with appropriate department officials in regard to department polices, information, school data -- the information necessary to formulate legislation. My experience has been that the department dissembles, ignores and marginalizes parents; it has been with a department that is simply arrogant. Attempts to get information about schools in our district are shunted to the press office.

The current system isn't working. Klein keeps promising not to be "bad," without changing any behavior. It's time for the legislature to impose changes.

Fixing the Problems

While some of my colleagues call for allowing mayoral control to expire, I believe the mayor should retain control, but with significant changes to the law.

-- Members of the Panel for Educational Policy, a.k.a the central board, should be appointed after vetting by a screening mechanism, similar to how local bar associations screen judicial candidates. They should then be selected by the mayor, borough presidents, the public advocate and the speaker of the City Council. The mayor should appoint five members of the panel for fixed terms, and every borough president and the City Council speaker should each appoint one member. The mayor also should name the chancellor.

-- An independent organization with subpoena powers should be formed. It should release regular reports on student achievement and fiscal data, and be jointly led by the state commissioner of education and the state comptroller. All Department of Education student data, with appropriate protection to ensure confidentiality, should be available to the public for research purposes.

-- Community and high school superintendents should actively monitor student progress, meet regularly with parents and community representatives and supervise all school staff under their purview.

-- Community Education Councils, a.k.a. Community School Boards, should participate in the selection of superintendents and principals. They should evaluate the performance of the superintendents and make recommendations to the chancellor. They also should be consulted in a timely manner on all zoning issues such as the opening and closing of all schools, including charter schools. Each district should maintain a District Leadership Team that complies with state Department of Education regulations. School and district leadership teams should be able to appeal decisions of the chancellor to the state commissioner of education, who would then resolve complaints in an expedited fashion.

While the chancellor likes to call the former Community School Board system a "failed system," he is incorrect. Some schools districts were models of parent and community involvement with superb student achievement while others were dismal failures.

-- An independent Office of Parent and Community Advocacy should be created to resolve parent issues and complaints, train parent school leaders and act as a liaison with community organizations.

It is time to change the law, to remind the mayor and the chancellor that children and families are not widgets. The system must both respond to them and involve them so that Klein can finally uphold his promise not to be "bad" anymore.


Alan Maisel, a former schoolteacher and assistant principal, is a Democratic member of the State Assembly, representing District 59 in Brooklyn.

The Limits of Democracy

The vote in Albany deciding whether or not to reauthorize the law giving the mayor control of New York City's public schools is approaching quickly. A vociferous effort by defenders of the old system has recently dampened the support for keeping the power in the mayor's hands.

Opponents of reauthorization -- including the teachers' union and many Bloomberg administration critics -- have won the most ground with their argument that mayoral control is undemocratic. But there is a difference between a democratic political system and a democratically run bureaucracy. New Yorkers shouldn't let such arguments persuade them to return to the bad old days, when no one was responsible for the city's schools.

The Bad Old Days

The old system of an appointed, unaccountable Board of Education bred a culture of inaction and crippled Gotham's schools. Though opponents of reauthorization say that they don't want to go back to that exact system, for all practical purposes their proposed "tweaks" to the law would do that.

Mayoral control broke the stagnation produced by an unaccountable system. While some may still disagree with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's specific reforms, there is little doubt that mayoral control has been essential in moving education reforms forward.

Despite the allegations of those opposed to reauthorization of the current law, there is nothing inherently undemocratic about the mayor controlling a large city bureaucracy like the school system. After all, the mayor controls other city services -- police, fire, sanitation and others -- with little complaint that his power is dictatorial. Of course, public schools have a uniquely democratic purpose in providing children with the knowledge they need to be effective and productive citizens. But that hardly means that day-to-day school operations must be governed democratically.

As in other policy areas, democracy's role in education is to put in place representatives who reflect the will of the people and hold those policymakers accountable for their cumulative decisions. Relying on such democratic processes to decide each individual policy is impractical and only leads to the stagnation and the poor results of Gotham's past.

The Parents' Part

Mayoral control does nothing to deny parents their essential role in education. Parents are in the best position to know what is best for their individual child. But, as with other government agencies on which we rely, the mayor is in the best position to make decisions that affect the broader education system.

That said, parents and communities do have a large stake in schools, and they should be consulted about important policies. But the mayor couldn't avoid communicating with them even if he wanted to. Those opposed to his school policies aren't exactly silent. Dissenting voices have spoken out against just about every policy the Bloomberg administration has pursued. While the mayor has the final word, he pays a political price when he goes against the true will of the people, and doing so takes a toll not only at the voting booth but in his ability to govern. Just because those opposed to recent reforms often have not gotten their way does not mean that they did not participate in the governing process.

Gotham's $18 billion school system, which operates more than 1,400 public schools, is a complex bureaucracy that requires a decision-making entity -- namely, the mayor. Mayoral control should be renewed.

Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Beyond Governance -- Creating a Constitution for City Schools

State Education Department Chancellor Merryl Tisch has added her voice to that of prominent education historian Diane Ravitch in challenging whether mayoral control of New York City schools has accounted for any improvements in student performance over the past several years or, indeed, whether significant improvement actually has occurred. The jump in test scores across New York State, with Buffalo registering a gain one third again greater than that claimed for New York City, has led Tisch to want to investigate whether "the tests have been made easier." Other experts have challenged official assertions of high school graduation rates.

Nearly all analysts -- from government officials, such as the public advocate, city comptroller and members of the City Council, to those who work in the schools (including members of the teachers union, the principals union and DC37) ---- as well as most major public school parent representatives -- have decried the lack of transparency, objective assessment and considerations of alternative policy ideas that have characterized the Department of Education, under the dictates of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein.

Limiting Absolute Authority

Our society values democratic procedures because we recognize that no one has a monopoly on wisdom and that giving leaders unlimited power can have dire consequences. We have just lived through the debacle created by self-considered know-it-alls who brought us the deception associated with the war in Iraq, and with the AIG/Bear Stearns/Lehman Bros/Citibank accounting by Moody's and Standard & Poor's. Surely the lesson is that independent oversight, accompanied by additional sources of information and decision-making, are essential.

This is why the focus on the future of school governance is necessary. The current system offers no real accountability. After all, the opportunity to make change comes only once every four years by an electorate in which direct stakeholders -- children, parents and educators -- are vastly outnumbered by those not affected by the schools day to day. The majority of voters, therefore, will rely on issues other than the condition of schools to determine whether to re-elect a mayor.

The Limits of Governance

But while focus on governance is necessary, it is insufficient. There is no guarantee that any different structure will articulate the vision and implement the policies that will provide the kind of education many of us seek for all New York City students.

For the past 40 years, during which I have observed and participated in efforts to improve New York City schools, there have been centralized systems, various forms of decentralization and now recentralization. There have been chancellors who have been educators and those who have not.

Amid all this change, there has been one constant. Regardless of the system of governance or who was chancellor, the schools have failed the majority of students, primarily low-income children of color.

Accountability, transparency and structure matter -- but only if they exist to uphold and advance shared principals and goals. This is what has been missing in New York City.

Schools have had Comprehensive Education Plans, so have districts. But the system as a whole has lacked such a comprehensive education plan. The administration's Children First initiative hardly qualifies. It, and the recent district and school plans which flow from it, is a No Child Left Behind compliance document, filled with data about test scores, but nary a sentence about what qualities define an educated person. It lacks any mention of initiatives that will inculcate critical thinking, creative imagination, love of learning, scientific literacy and preparation for democratic citizenry.

In my District 6, 12 out of 13 middle schools received report card grades of A or B, yet only 30 percent of eighth graders met New York State standards in science, and only 16 percent do so in social studies. So what does any purported increase in reading or math scores reveal about whether we are educating children?

Setting Goals...

What is needed, therefore, is an explicit and legally binding articulation of purpose stating what we want to accomplish in our schools. This statement needs to be embodied in a Constitution for the New York City Public School System. Such a constitution can set out the vision and the mandates necessary to provide all our city's children with a truly comprehensive public democratic education regardless of who governs the system or how it is governed.

The model is that of the victory of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, which challenged the funding of education in New York State. That lawsuit was possible only because the New York State Constitution guarantees the right to a "sound, basic, education." Citing that language, the campaign argued the level of funding for city schools was not adequate to provide such an education. Now, though, it is time to go beyond that framework to require the conditions to produce educational excellence for all.

The Parent Commission on School Governance, of which I am a contributor, has drafted a sample constitution illustrating what such mandates could include.

Some would involve resources. The schools might need to have, for example, sufficient trained instructional and support staff to reduce class size to the level recommended by the Professional Judgment Panels in the CFE case. In addition, the city and state would have to provide every school with the facilities that a comprehensive curriculum requires, such as science labs, art rooms, gymnasiums and auditoriums.

Other would concern educational philosophy. Steps would be taken to ensure the use of multiple forms of assessment -- not just standardized tests -- such as including rigorous individualized student projects, as the 28 schools in the New York Performance Consortium do, with excellent student outcomes. The constitution could require developing a staff sensitive to the diversity of ethnicity, race and class in the system and that reflects the demography of the students of the city. The constitution could stress the educational value of schools and classrooms that are racially and economically integrated.

Additional mandates could enshrine schools as collaborators with their communities offering universal pre-kindergarten and, along with other institutions, providing comprehensive healthcare, after-school recreation and adult education.

Such a constitution would codify in law what our schools have never had: a shared mission with core principles, primary goals and a policy framework that must be respected and upheld by whomever is governing the system.

... And Sticking to Them

At the beginning of every school year, the Board of Education and chancellor would set out how they plan to achieve these goals. They also would evaluate whether the board's policies are furthering the fulfillment of the mandates. That would be the beginning of real accountability of the Board of Education. Any non-compliant board would be subject to review by the State Education Department and ultimately could be removed from office through procedures set out in the constitution.

The board and chancellor also would provide an honest assessment of how much it would cost to fulfill the aims set forth in the constitution, even if that funding was not available. This would help determine what the level of education funding should be.

An Opportunity for Change

The Parent Commission has a governance proposal that it hopes the state Legislature will adopt. It includes a major role for parents together with a diminution of the mayor's power; restoration of district superintendents and offices; and greater attentiveness to students with special needs. Such measures can begin to change the educational environment.

Simultaneously, however, the legislature should seize this historic opportunity as we re-examine our school system and establish a broad-based task force or commission, composed of parents, educators, community based organizations, business and religious groups, to forge a citywide consensus on what would emerge as a constitution for our schools. Together with an organization called the Rs Coalition, we are drafting legislation that would incorporate this proposal.

Without articulation of an educational vision -- and a procedure for requiring that that vision be realized -- the schools will continue to fail many of our students. Then, when the next experiment with a governance system runs its course, we likely will once again have the same discussion we are having now about why students are unprepared for employment or citizenship.

That would be a tragedy for the families who have been denied for so long. It also would be tragic for our city.

Josh Karan has been engaged in efforts to establish democratic educational excellence for 35 years. He has been a community organizer in District 19 in East New York Brooklyn, an active supported of the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, and a member of the District 6 Community Education Council and the Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral Control.

Moving Around Downtown


The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's blueprint for rebuilding lower Manhattan strongly emphasizes transportation. In fact, the corporation says that construction on much of the World Trade Center site cannot begin until transportation improvements are in place.

While I applaud this emphasis, I am not surprised by it. The September 11th tragedy struck a massive blow to the transportation and utility infrastructure of Lower Manhattan. The subway lines, the PATH, major roads and critical utility lines were all knocked out of service -- some for a few days or weeks, others for months and for years to come.

In light of this, one of the keys to the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan is not only what the site is ultimately going to look like, but how we get people in and out of the area. In addition, tragedy has left us with a tremendous opportunity -- a clean slate to work with. So another key issue is how we can use the rebuilding process to rectify a number of the planning mistakes that were in place before September 11.

For people who worked downtown, lived downtown, or even tried to go downtown before September 11, lower Manhattan was a hodgepodge of subway and commuter lines. Often you could not connect from one line to another line. There was no one link bringing everything together. Instead, you had to go through caverns of underground walkways and at times probably thought you would never reach the subway line you needed. Although a fairly active ferry service came into the Battery Park City north cove, there was no connection to bring the people to the buildings where they worked or to the subway lines. And the major commuter transportation line coming into lower Manhattan, the PATH, also did not connect to all the subway lines.

To correct this, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has called for a new hub connecting subway, commuter rail and ferry lines. This would probably mean the creation of an actual terminal in lower Manhattan.

In Europe, there are many grand terminals that are really testimonials and memorials to great times in European history and to great battles. Maybe the new downtown transportation terminal could be another memorial to the people who lost their lives on September 11.

The hub could be a beacon for lower Manhattan. It would serve as a station for the PATH train and for all the subway lines. At 42nd Street on the West Side, one subway station pretty much links you up with all the train lines. This downtown terminal would do the same thing. It would also connect to the ferry terminal and to various sites downtown. It could include an underground bus terminal for commuter buses and the tour buses that will come downtown to bring visitors to the proposed memorial and museum and other sites. My sense is that the proposed terminal will probably be somewhere along Church Street, but no exact location has been determined yet.

After September 11, we analyzed how people come into lower Manhattan, where are they come from and where they want to go. We found that more than 40 percent of the people who took the PATH train went east to the Wall Street area after they came in, some to buildings, some to subway lines. But there was no way of getting them east below ground. They walked above ground.

This suggests the need to create a link to get people farther east and into our subway system quickly and safely. This could involve an underground pedestrian tunnel and people movers.

Extension of the commuter rail lines into this downtown hub is also being discussed. We now have an ideal opportunity to do this and ease the commute downtown for thousands of Westchester and Long Island residents, but it would be quite costly. Whether or not this should be pursued as opposed to other initiatives remains to be seen.

Many of the other links are already in place. Clearly the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority were stretched to the limit before September 11. Now, though, President Bush's recovery bill of $21 billion includes nearly $2 billion for this initiative, as well as funding for road and infrastructure repair. However, meeting the transportation needs of lower Manhattan has been estimated to cost at least $7 billion.

Some aspects of the plan will eventually save money. Before September 11, the bus routes downtown, as well as truck deliveries, were very cumbersome because of the streetscape. If you remember, Dey Street and Fulton Street did not go through to the river because of the World Trade Center site. Restoring the street grid will make it easier and more economical for trucks and buses to move downtown.

Restoring the street grid will also make the streets more accessible and safer for pedestrians, which is one of my big goals. It will connect lower Manhattan in a more rational way to Battery Park City. As we restore the grid, we can create a number of access points to the street to help passengers safely go to and from the various subway stations, tunnels and people movers.

Burying West Street for all or part of the way between Chambers Street and the Battery Park Underpass, as the development corporation's plan suggests, would make it easier for pedestrians to go from the World Trade Center site to Battery Park City, the World Financial Center and the waterfront. In addition, it would create a swath of land above the new tunnel that could be used as a greenspace or for other purposes.

After September 11, although the PATH was out of service, New York City was able to get back in operation very quickly because of our waterways and our ability to offer ferry service to people coming to Lower Manhattan from New Jersey and Brooklyn. Ferry ridership in New York has nearly doubled since September 11.

Ferry service is an incredibly dynamic and adaptable mass transit option and, perhaps, an underutilized one. Now that we have an abundance of ferry terminals, we should figure out ways to make ferry service competitive even after the PATH comes back. If you price ferry service sensibly, I think you will get a lot of converts to commuting by water

In the months since September 11, we have taken steps to help the area rebuild. Now I am hopeful that six years after the tragedy, we will have created an accessible, revitalized and vibrant Lower Manhattan.

Iris Weinshall is New York City commissioner of transportation.

Posted April 29, 2002

Cutting Back on Democracy

Image by Gotham Gazette

We New Yorkers have dueling psyches. We're worried about the state of the economy, but we are also hopeful about the future and excited about the role of government and citizens in making things better. We know that we are in for lean times. But we also believe that some things are too precious to lose.

Among them are New York City's 59 community boards. In his 2010 budget, unveiled last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed slashing the community boards' budget by 17 percent.

gotham gazette commentary

Clearly the mayor has to cut the budget somewhere. But there are three reasons why, despite the fiscal constraints, we need to maintain community board funding at its current level.

First, the 59 community boards are the people's most direct line to city government, the most effective way to participate in discussions about public policy and quality of life issues -- the closest thing to direct democracy that we have in the city. The public's participation in government is becoming increasingly circumscribed, as important decisions on questions like extending term limits for city officials and appointing replacements for U.S. senators are made essentially behind closed doors, by small groups of officials. This makes it all the more essential to preserve New Yorkers' ability to have their say.

Second, the community boards deal with grassroots issues that directly affect the city's disparate neighborhoods. These include questions as varied as affordable housing, school overcrowding, real estate development, noise, sidewalk cafes and liquor licenses. Often, citizens themselves raise these matters and are intimately involved in shaping the recommendations the boards eventually make. In the recent discussions between Fordham University and the city over Fordham's proposed expansion near Lincoln Center, for example, my community board -- Community Board 7 in Manhattan -- was instrumental in addressing citizens' very real concerns about density, parking garages, open space, design approval and the like. We served as a link between the residents and the city.

And last, while New York City's budget is stretched thinner than ever, community boards provide a significant "bang for their buck." Using the mayor's "business" model, the 50- member volunteer boards, each served by just a few city-paid staffers, are pretty lean structures. The average New York community board receives$220,000 a year -- less than the cost of a subway ride for every person it represents. Together spending on the boards accounts for a total of $15 million in a $60 billion budget. The mayor's proposed cuts -- which would be distributed evenly among the boards -- to an already efficient budget would cripple the boards, all but eliminating their ability to function effectively.

Where the Money Goes

Roughly 70 percent of community board spending is on staff and the remainder goes to "other than personnel services" such as rent, office supplies, postage, equipment and repairs. While the community boards would try to take the cuts as carefully as possible, there is little room to maneuver.

More than likely, the cuts will have a significant impact in two areas: They would diminish the boards' ability to develop zoning and infrastructure plans, and to analyze and conduct public review of development proposals. They also would reduce the boards' ability to communicate with and involve residents, businesses and institutions.

The impact of the cuts to community board budgets are further compounded by di minimus historical increases compared to citywide spending. On average, the rate of annual growth for all city agencies is over twice that of the increases to community boards. According to the Independent Budget Office, since 1980 city spending on community boards decreased over time from .04 percent to .03 percent of total annual city funds.

When the mayor says that the 2010 budget imposes the same budget decrease on all city agencies, it does not take into account the fact that, unlike the other agencies, community boards have received no meaningful increases in their budgets since 1980 making it impossible for them to build up a cushion or keep up with rising costs. In fact, with the historic rising cost of supplies and rent, the community boards have already had to significantly trim their budgets every year.

We are at a delicate juncture when the urgent need for savings can sometimes result in too-hasty decisions. President Barack Obama has brought with him a renewed interest in participatory democracy and a desire for transparency in government. People are more motivated to make a difference in their communities, and New Yorkers need their community boards more than ever. Bloomberg must maintain the current funding level for community boards. It's economical and it's good government. What more can we ask for?

Helen Rosenthal is serving her second term as chair of Community Board 7 on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She has been a member of the Board for nearly a decade. Previously, she worked as an assistant director in the Office of Management and Budget during the Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani administrations where she oversaw the budgets of the city's health care agencies. Until the city passed the term limit extension bill, she was a candidate for New York City Council.

Free Buses, Cheaper Subways -- and a Solution to New York's Traffic

Free Buses, Cheaper Subways -- and a Solution to New York's Traffic
Photo (cc) Pete Biggs

Last spring, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed an $8 "congestion fee" to drive into parts of Manhattan, the plan fell victim to several intrinsic weaknesses. Geographical inequity, for one: Manhattan residents and New Jersey drivers would have ponied up a lot less than car commuters from Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. Lack of ambition, for another: The promised 6 percent drop in midtown gridlock seemed a meager reward for ending free use of city streets and bridges.

But the basic idea is a good one, as experience in London, Stockholm and Milan has shown. Can "congestion pricing done right," as new State Sen. Daniel Squadron has called for, fix the Bloomberg plan's flaws? With a smarter plan, can we make a serious dent in traffic tie-ups that by some estimates cost the city $13 billion a year, while creating so many winners that the plan survives the legislative gauntlet?

What This Plan Would Do

Here's one possibility:

  • Replace the mayor's flat $8 toll to drive into Manhattan south of 60th Street with a sliding scale of charges. All cars and trucks trips driving across 60th Street from the north or entering midtown or lower Manhattan via a bridge or tunnel would pay a fee, but it would vary, from $10 during weekday peak hours down to $2 at night and much of the weekend. The charge would be at least twice as effective in unsnarling traffic as the mayor's $8 flat fee yet would average less -- around $6.
  • Since all vehicles contribute to congestion, all vehicles pay: no "offsets" for other tolls paid by drivers from New Jersey, no matter how much they paid to cross the Hudson, and no exemptions for "black cars" driven into Manhattan to pick up or drop off their largely well-off clientele. For medallion cabs, which circulate a great deal within the "cordon" without crossing it, a surcharge on fares gives an equivalent effect.
  • Dedicate the revenues from the congestion toll and taxi surcharge to eliminate bus fares (which will speed boarding), make trips within the city on Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter trains free (which will help ease subway crowding), and cut subway fares.

This plan originated with Ted Kheel, the lawyer and civic activist who, for the past two years, has sponsored a research program to realize his hope of making car travel more efficient and mass transit more affordable by integrating the two systems. Kheel's foundation, Nurture New York's Nature, has funded development of a computer model -- the "Balanced Transportation Analyzer" -- that predicts how the new tolls and fare incentives will alter commuter behavior and calculates the resulting changes in travel speeds and agency revenues.

The analyzer is firmly grounded in empirical evidence. For example, to calculate how many auto commuters would shift their trip from the 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. morning peak, when the $10 toll would apply, to the 5a.m. to 6 a.m. hour, when the toll would drop to $4, the analyzer draws on data about drivers' actual time-shifting after the Port Authority instituted time-variable pricing in 2001. The same approach lets us estimate that a variable subway fare topped off at $1.50 during the 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. rush hours and tapering down before and after would cut subway ridership during those two rush hours while increasing it at less crowded times.

The analyzer is now making the rounds of the regional transportation agencies. No less an authority than "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, the former chief traffic engineer for New York City and the dean of his profession, has pronounced the model "comprehensive, logical and the best I've seen."

Run this new congestion-pricing plan through the analyzer, and the numbers are striking. Charge a 24/7 congestion price varying from $2 to $10 and increase taxi fares by a third, and the resulting revenue could allow the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to halve the average subway fare and make all other transit inside the city, including buses and commuter trains, free. The combined carrot and stick will increase the number of people traveling into the heart of the city while reducing the number of cars. This would improve daytime traffic speeds by an average of 20 percent in Manhattan south of 60th Street and provide sizeable improvements on the approaches from the boroughs and New Jersey.

To be sure, our plan won't cure the inherited MTA deficit. Other proposals have been advanced to do that, such as the one proposed by the Ravitch Commission last fall. A "Kheel-Komanoff" plan, however, could be powerfully merged with a deficit-plugging plan, enhancing it in crucial ways. Indeed, the Ravitch plan, which may be adopted in some form this spring, is fully compatible with our model. The small -- and controversial -- portion of that plan that calls for geographically biased bridge tolls would be replaced by the Kheel-Komanoff universal toll and taxi fee. (Note to residents east of the East River: Under the Ravitch plan, which calls for bridge tolls, alone, you would account for 60 percent of all fees collected. That falls to 36 percent under Kheel-Komanoff, which spreads the burden among more drivers.)

The merged plan could keep the payroll tax Ravitch recommends as well as his calls for greater efficiency and transparency at the MTA. If additional monies are needed to fund the authority's capital budget, these could be drawn from the congestion-pricing pot by deferring some of the drop in subway fares. The provision for free buses should be inviolate, however, because many poorer New Yorkers rely on buses and they are a mainstay in communities underserved by subways.

Our plan benefits everyone, including drivers, who will pay more but get a faster and more reliable commute in return. The biggest beneficiaries may be bus riders. The free fare will not only stretch their paychecks but also speed their trips, since no one will have to stop and swipe a Metrocard to get on board. New Yorkers would see overall time savings running into billions of dollars, not to mention fewer car crashes, healthier air and an improved quality of life.

Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Paterson, MTA Chairman Sander, fellow New Yorkers: That traffic plan you've been waiting for? It's right here.

Charles Komanoff, an independent policy analyst, is president emeritus of Transportation Alternatives and a founding trustee of the Tri -State Transportation Campaign.

The Department of Education's Power Grip

While legislation giving the mayor control of the city schools had laudable goals, over the past seven years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have demonstrated an alarmingly expansive interpretation of their own powers. Under mayoral control, government transparency has been a scarce commodity, and the Department of Education has operated like a tightly controlled bunker that excludes parents and lawmakers from most meaningful participation.

New York City's children and parents suffer the consequences of this unfettered mayoral control. Thousands of police personnel patrol city schools with little oversight or accountability. In March 2007, police personnel handcuffed and arrested 13-year-old Chelsea Fraser in front of her Dyker Heights classmates. Her crime? Writing the word "okay" on her desk. In January 2008, Denis Rivera, a 5-year-old kindergarten student was handcuffed for throwing a temper tantrum in his kindergarten class.

Principals are not immune from falling victim to the consequences of unfettered mayoral control. East Side Community High School Principal Mark Federman was arrested for pleading with police to not parade a handcuffed honor roll student in front of her classmates.

Despite these abuses, the mayor and the department refuse to create rules governing police behavior in the schools, citing mayoral control as the reason. Children and parents are left to wonder who's in charge of school discipline: the principal or the police?

Bullying based on sexuality, ethnicity and religion continues to be a major problem. According to the Department of Education's own survey, 76 percent of middle and high school students reported seeing students "threaten or bully other students at school." The City Council passed the Dignity in All Schools Act in 2004 to address this, yet the mayor has refused to fully enforce the law, claiming that the City Council has no authority over the Department of Education. Our children pay the price for this. Osama al-Najjar, a student at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, plunged into a deep depression and tried to commit suicide because he was incessantly called Osama bin Laden. Harpal Singh Vacher, a Sikh freshman at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, was attacked, wrestled to the ground and had his hair cut off by another student.

The New York Civil Liberties Union, where I am advocacy director, recently documented these failures in a report on civil rights and civil liberties under mayoral control. We drew lessons from our experiences in the schools to suggest ways to improve the school governance system and protect the safety, well-being and constitutional rights of students.

The NYCLU does not take a position on whether to renew mayoral control. We do not take a position on whether the mayor should be able to appoint a majority of Panel for Educational Policy members or whether the mayor should have sole authority to appoint the chancellor. But we hope that, in the debate over the renewal of mayoral control, state lawmakers concentrate on how our school governance system operates: Does it invite abuse of power? Does it embrace democratic principles? Is it the best system to educate, prepare and protect our youth?

Opening the System

Whether it approves extending mayoral control or not, the Legislature must ensure that our schools do not continue to operate through unchecked executive authority, excessive secrecy, and blocks to public participation and oversight. By taking steps to ensure greater transparency and accountability, the Legislature can satisfy both those who support and reject mayoral control.

First, the department cannot continue to operate as its own autonomous agency. It must be clearly defined as a city agency subject to the authority of the City Council, comptroller, public advocate, city charter and city laws, which ensure transparency and oversight.

Second, there must be an empowered board of education. Regardless of whether the mayor appoints the chancellor and a majority of members to the Panel for Educational Policy, which replaced the board, students, parents and educators would all benefit from a strong panel. The law already requires that the panel approve education policies. Now it must be strengthened to require that the chancellor submit all new citywide policies and practices that affect student achievement for the board's approval.

The authority to appoint members should be distributed among all citywide elected officials and the City Council. And in order to avoid undue influence on members and encourage thoughtful debate, panel members should serve fixed terms and elect their own chair.

Third, the parental voice in policymaking must be strengthened. The Community Education Councils and citywide councils must have responsibilities and authority that ensure parental involvement in the setting of education policies. The community and citywide councils' authority should be expanded to include approval of district school safety plans, the opening and closing of schools, and other district-specific policies.

Fourth, school safety practices must be brought in line with education policy. The police department plays a unique and expansive role in the city's schools. As the number of police personnel in the schools has increased to a whopping 5,200 agents, the ability of educators to oversee school safety and student discipline has decreased. The number of school safety agents and police officers has increased by 44 percent since 2002, making the police department's school safety division the fifth largest police force in the country. Houston, with a population of 2.2 million residents, has fewer police officers on the streets than the number of New York City police personnel patrolling New York City's million schoolchildren. Yet educators, who have experience maintaining a nurturing learning environment, have little oversight over police employees in schools. The New York state and city education departments must have clear authority to oversee all school safety practices, including police department activities.

Fifth, the public must be engaged in the decision making process. All Chancellor's Regulations -- which promulgate a wide range of policies, from admissions standards to the process for selecting parent council members -- must be subject to a public comment period. The police department does not finalize regulations without a public comment period, and neither should the Department of Education. The board or Panel on Educational Policy also must open its policymaking and adjudication process to the public, and ensure that parents are welcomed to and informed about its meetings.

Sixth, we need transparency. The education department must end its practice of withholding from the public raw data on student performance, including student safety issues, and must meet its legal obligation to give the public access to records. For example, the department has failed to provide the public with raw data on who is getting arrested in our schools, why children are leaving school without graduating, and who is getting suspended and for what. Without access to such information, the public cannot determine whether the city's educational environment is truly improving. To allow for an independent assessment of the department's data, the Independent Budget Office must have authority to report on the education department's performance, as it does on other city agencies.

Seventh, the legislature must create an Office of Inspector General to conduct independent audits and investigations into Department of Education practices. The inspector general should investigate systemic problems that affect the educational environment. For example, the inspector general should look into whether the dramatic increase in the number of police personnel in the schools has had a negative impact on the educational environment.

Finally, the legislature must allow the law to sunset again in seven years. The debate over the best school governance structure for our children has led to passionate discussions among policymakers and the public and a renewed interest in city schools. Whichever system the legislature chooses, it must expire, allowing for a continuous public debate.

The current regime of mayoral control is incompatible with a transparent and accountable educational environment. The legislature must address the lack of checks and balances and close legislative loopholes that have allowed a secretive and unaccountable Department of Education to flourish.

Udi Ofer is advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and author of the report.