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Involvement and Accountability

by Dennis Walcott, Jun 17, 2002
 

 Dennis Walcott is deputy mayor for policy. He served as president of the New York Urban League and was a member of the Board of Education. This is adapted from a speech he delivered to the Women's City Club of New York on June 5 just as a deal was being reached to give the mayor control of the New York City public schools:

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I am a parent of four children. All of them have gone through the New York City public education system. I have been a board of education member and a temporary trustee of a local school board. My wife has been involved in one of our school's local leadership teams. In short, I am a big believer in public education.

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Mayor Bloomberg is passionate in his beliefs on a number of issues, but his number one issue happens to coincide with my number one issue: education.

The administration's vision for education is very simple. We feel that the mayor should be the person responsible for selecting a chancellor and for dealing with the chancellor, who, in turn has the power to hire the district superintendents. We want parents involved at all levels.

This change in governance will provide accountability. People ask us what that has to do with performance. Well, accountability is about everything. If you don't have a person accountable, you don't have a good outcome at the end of the day.

The reality is we've got a budget deficit. The mayor made a decision to cut budgets across all agencies, including police and fire and including the Department of Aging. But in negotiating with the state, we are seeking to restore education spending to where it should be or, at worst, slightly below where it should be.

One of the things we have to look at is the allocation of dollars both from the central Board of Education to the districts and then from the districts to the local schools as well. Our Office of Management and Budget has been working with the board's division of budget and looking at the numbers to make sure that we do not have any dollars cut from the classroom.

The education budget includes debt service, it includes pension relief, it includes a lot of items that drive up the cost. The challenge is how you redirect the budget to make sure that classrooms benefit.

When it comes to money, governance means a lot. Instead of an amorphous board of education being held accountable for spending, the mayor will be held accountable. Then the voters can decide whether this mayor or future mayors did a job on education similar to what past mayors did on crime and other issues they had under their control.

On funding, the mayor will have to put himself, or in the future, herself on the line and make sure that there is money to support initiatives around education. If not, the voters will hold them accountable.

It takes a lot of guts on my boss's part to push this out front and push it so hard. He is saying, "I want to be accountable. I want the buck to stop with me."

Along with accountability, goes the issue of engaging parents and communities to support the educational system. Accountability extends to issues involving the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the principal's union, making sure that we have a team approach for dealing with schools.

The late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said all politics is local. Well, all education is local as well. You can deal with education on a macro basis by putting in new systems, but, when you get right down to it, the issue really is how do you improve the local school.

How do you get a principal who is qualified to run his or her school? How do you make sure you have certified teachers teaching in their course area in th eir respective schools? How do you deal with the issue of those schools that the state has determined are failing -- the schools under registration review or SURR schools -- and make sure there's a reform plan in place to move them off that list and not just languish.

How do you put the challenge of education children back to the community? I hear a lot of debate about teachers, principals and the chancellor, but an equal amount of debate needs to take place around the community's responsibility and the parents' responsibility in education.

Parents need to play a major role. In our discussions with Albany, we looked at ways to maximize parental involvement as well as community involvement. I have been at a number of local school boards, some good and some not so good, and the good ones say, "Listen, the parents don't care. They don't want to be involved."

I approach it from the opposite end. I want to make sure that parents have an opportunity to be engaged in their local schools.

We're looking at several things to improve community involvement. Since I've been deputy mayor, the mayor, myself and our team have met with close to 150 individuals and groups at City Hall as well as in the community. We have been getting feedback, both formal and informal, as far as not only how to restructure but how to engage our children in a more meaningful way.

I hosted a meeting with roughly 15 deans from the schools of education in New York City, both public and private, to discuss how they can work with us. We're going to reconvene to talk about the teacher certification issues we will face in the upcoming year, as well as to take a look at how the education schools can become more engaged in schools in their local communities.

I've met with ministers. I have met with local lay leaders in the communities to get them to buy into the system. I've met with business leaders throughout the city to make sure that they are there to provide support. We have foundations that have been waiting for the debate on governance to be concluded so they can make commitments for investing in the New York City educational system. We have people of good will and interest who are ready to jump in as partners to help reform and improve our educational system.

Other than education, my responsibilities include the Housing Authority, the City University of New York system, the School Construction Authority, the Health and Hospitals Corporation and the Department of Youth and Community Development. My goal and our goal in the administration is to have these different agencies and authorities linked together.

The Housing Authority houses residents who attend the public school system. How do we develop better integration between the housing authority ad the education structure to make sure there's collaboration? How can we put tutorial programs and after school support services located in individual housing authority facilities?

How do we take advantage of some of the new legislation that will come down to improve the School Construction Authority and make sure that we bring down the price per square foot of building schools? That way, even with the budget deficit situation, we can get more bang for our buck in building schools.

How do we expand the partnership that we already have with CUNY and build more schools on campuses? How do we take advantage of the generous offer of Governors Island from the federal government and President George W. Bush and use it to benefit the public high school system?

I am not one to promise miracles because we have a big deficit that we have to face not only this year but in future years as well. What I can guarantee and promise is that we will listen, we will meet and respond, we will collaborate with people who both agree and disagree with us. In our outreach to those 150 groups and individuals, we met with some individuals who totally disagree with the way we're handling certain things.

The culmination of my no longer being "out there" as an advocate and president of the New York Urban League but instead being in my "insider's" role came when I was roundly booed at an event at Washington Irving High School a few months ago. It was a mind-boggling experience. But I told the group that was booing me, "You know, that's your right and I have no problems with that. I will come back next time and time and time again, and you can continue to boo because I will give you the respect that you deserve and we can try to collaborate together to reach consensus on those issues where we disagree."

That's what this administration is about -- meeting with people from various backgrounds, various belief system, various ways of operating business, and pulling together not just to rebuild lower Manhattan but to work on rebuilding the entire city both from a psychological point of view and from a human service and educational point of view.


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