Levy's Legacy at Bronx Science
September 16th, 2011
The Times yesterday had an interesting story on the exodus of teachers from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. According to Anna Phillips, eight of the school’s 20 social studies teachers decided not to return this year, sending the turnover rate at what one would think would be a desirable to teach to 19 percent, five percentage points higher than for the city as a whole. Phillips traces the discontent back at least as far as 2005 – but actually it dates before that to the pre-mayoral control days and the region of now largely forgotten Chancellor Harold Levy.
Back in the Giuliani administration in 1999, Stanley Blumenstein announced his retirement as principal of the selective public school. A search committee unanimously recommended William Stark, an administrator and social studies teacher serving as interim president, to fill the post.
Levy, a graduate of Bronx Science, balked, reportedly wanting a scientist to fill the post, not an educator — although there was never an indication that any top scientist even wanted the job. Levy asked the committee to find someone else.
Levy was a corporate lawyer when he was named chancellor and, like Cathie Black a decade later, needed a waiver to become chancellor. (He now works in finance and raised eyebrows in 2009 for a $500,000 contribution to Al Sharpton.)
To many observers his handling of the situation at Bronx Science was a classic indication of what can happen when people with little experience running schools control them. Faculty and parents disputed Levy’s notion that a scientist would be the best pick for the job. “Running a public high school, they say, is more like running a fine restaurant than a political campaign, a foundation or a college. At Bronx Science, they say, the importance of spin and public relations pales compared with the mundane ability to deal with cantankerous union officials, powerful custodians and 2,700 needy, if talented, adolescents,” the Times wrote.
Levy called for more candidates leaving Stark to stew. By the time he finally decided maybe Stark was the best candidate after all – months later – Stark had taken a job with well-regarded public school in an affluent Long Island community.
A Daily News editorial summed it up this way: “Levy effectively nixed the choice [of Stark]: He wanted a Nobel laureate. An Einstein type to order pencils and supervise custodians. Bottom line: Levy never found his genius, a fed-up Stark took a job on Long Island and Bronx Science suffered.”
With no scientists having presented themselves for the post, Levy then appointed Valerie Reidy, like Stark, a teacher at Bronx Science.
“What a folly the whole thing is because Bill Stark was infinitely better, and they chased this really talented person out,” one teacher told the Times.
Reidy, the New York Sun’s Andrew Wolf wrote was “on no one’s short list to assume the top job. But she found herself in the right place at the right time, proof of the Peter Principle, which holds that in a hierarchy, employees rise to the level of their incompetence. ”
By most accounts, things since have not gone well – even after Mayor Michael Bloomberg named Joel Klein to replace Levy and assumed control of the schools. So far the Department of Education seems to be standing by Levy.
In 2008, math teachers filed a complain against an assistant principal, reportedly an ally of Reidy’s, accusing her of harassment and arbitrary decision-making. An arbiter recommended that the assistant principal and a teacher at odds with her both be reassigned; the department rejected that suggestions.
Whether the latest will spur a change is anyone’s guess but many writing in to comment on Phillips’ article hope it will. One, Geoffrey Nutter, who taught there for a year, wrote, “I loved my students, they were great. My coworkers were smart and hardworking. But I have never met anyone as cruel and petty as Principal Valerie Reidy, from whom I had to endure threats, intimidation, and ultimately denial of tenure and the end of my public school teaching career in New York City.”By Gail Robinson on September 16, 2011, 3:19 pm
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