Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been lobbying hard to get rid of both the central Board of Education and the 32 local school boards. It seems clear that the Board of Education's days are numbered: Governor George Pataki and the state legislature are on the verge of a deal that will turn control of the school system over to the mayor and a revamped, expanded board where the mayor has the majority of appointees. But no one seems to know whether there will be a change to the local boards.
For one thing, while the members of the central board are appointed, the local school board members are elected, and the legislature cannot eliminate such a body without approval from the Department of Justice (which is still pending). For another, there still seems to be considerable disagreement about the value of the local boards, as well as about what, if any, governing structure should take their place.
School board elections planned for this month were postponed a year in anticipation of restructuring. But sources in Albany say that the community school board status quo may have an unlikely ally: the senate's Republican m ajority. The city's Republican senators represent districts where community school boards are functioning well. They may hold up or even block changes to the boards.
Community school boards have shared accountability for running the schools since 1969. In the midst of great public concern about equal educational opportunity, the state legislature established the 32 community school districts and elected boards to decentralize control of the city schools and to give local communities a significant voice in who ran their schools and how. Community school boards back then had the power to hire community superintendents, principals, and assistant principals, as well as to approve school budgets.
In 1997, however, in an attempt to create greater system-wide accountability, the legislature stripped local boards of these responsibilities, re-centralizing power with the chancellor and superintendents, and leaving the boards with policy setting duties but no real authority.
Mayor Bloomberg would replace the current boards with district and borough-wide advisory committees that include parents. This makes sense, say advocates of mayoral control, because, above all, the new governance scheme must entail crystal-clear lines of authority and accountability throughout the school system. "The worst case," says Raymond Domanico, senior education advisor for the Industrial Areas Foundation, Metro New York and a supporter of direct mayoral control and accountability, "would be for Albany to establish mayoral control but for the details of the plan to undermine it."
Domanico opposes local boards because they create the risk of confusion: "Who does the superintendent report to, the chancellor or the school board? It has to be clear. The school system must have the power it needs to ensure the best-prepared professionals in its schools."
Many of the city's school boards set sound policies and support district efforts. But community school boards have long sparked criticism and complaints. School boards have been accused of patronage and corruption, though rumors far exceed proven incidents. School board elections, held in May rather than November, turn out fewer than five percent of eligible voters. And school boards themselves complain of being trivialized by the school system as a whole, especially since they lost their decision-making powers, and of being paralyzed by in-fighting factions.
Judy Baum from Advocates for Children, who has written widely on school board elections, says, "Current community school board performance has been uneven. The successes of some ought to be the model for others. The best boards have garnered lots of voter support through energetic campaigns and provide for parent and public input throughout their tenure. They have chosen leadership through careful selection processes and have tended to stay away from local power politics." The successful boards have also created opportunities for a diverse population to serve the community in public office, Baum says.
While some boards have been avenues for greater community involvement in schools, many have not. As one Brooklyn principal explained, members frequently come to school boards "with political rather than educational agendas." For this reason, she says, they are as often a hindrance as a help. If the school boards were eliminated, she says, "it wouldn't make a heck of a lot of difference" to education in her district.
Rodney Saunders, a Bronx District 11 school-board member for the past nine years and former board president, disagrees that school boards have outlived their usefulness. The community school boards still serve the crucial function of providing advocacy for parents and community schools, he says. School board members provide a history and perspective on the schools that parents often lack and a connection with the community that will be lost. He worries that the proposed change in the governance structure "would put people in control of the schools who are virtually invisible to parents."
Saunders believes instead that community school boards need real power and authority -- like the school boards elsewhere in the state. From the beginning, Saunders charges, school boards were too handicapped to get results. He would like to see a system that channeled state funding directly to the community school districts and made community school boards accountable to the State Education Department for effective spending to fulfill the state's educational mandates. The mayor would the be accountable for the city's share of school funding, which would cover teachers' salaries, transportation, facilities, and safety.
Karen Feuer, the president of Manhattan's Community School Board 2, also believes that the current hobbled school boards are not the best way to support education locally. With Anne Mackinnon of Community School Board 22 in Brooklyn, she has proposed dissolving community school boards and replacing them with district advisory boards to improve public oversight of the schools. The advisory boards would be chosen by stakeholder groups and made up of "qualified individuals with a genuine interest in the educational success of the district" with the expertise to support and challenge the superintendent, ideally in public conversations. If some of these experts are parents, all the better, Feuer says. However, she believes that parents' greatest involvement and influence should be focused at "the most local level" -- their own children's schools -- through the variety of venues that already exist for that involvement: school leadership teams, parents' associations, Parents' Council, and so on. That's where parents should use pressure and support to help schools to set and meet their own goals.
Governance is not a panacea, Feuer warns. As she and others point out, whatever the governance change, it will not, by itself, solve the school system's woes. Whoever is in charge at each level of the school system must make it a priority to get well-prepared teachers and principals into the schools and make sure they have what they need to do their jobs.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and Director of Policy Development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a not-for-profit coalition working to reform New York State's education finance system to ensure adequate resources and the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.