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In Charge and Unaccountable

by Councilmember Robert Jackson, May 18, 2009
 

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.


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Last Updated (Mar 21, 2012)