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School Boards

by Derek Alger, Nov 13, 2000
 

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If you're seeking confusing ballots, narrow margins of victory, and hand-counted votes,look no further than the contests for New York City's 32 community school boards. It takes weeks to get the results, and many befuddled voters don't understand how to mark their ballots.

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There's at least one big difference, though, between the races for school board in New York City and the current furor in Florida: While the stakes in Florida are undeniably high, many critics say it really doesn't matter who wins New York's school boards races. The boards are virtually powerless and, whatever the lofty goals that surrounded their founding three decades ago, critics charge that they are today nothing more than an unnecessary bureaucracy, and an occasional source of corruption.

That argument got an added boost earlier this month when Celestine Miller, a former superintendent of District 29 in Queens, and five others were charged in a 123-count indictment alleging that they took bribes totaling more than $900,000 to rig bids for $6 million in computer equipment for 19 schools. It's a long way, critics say, from the rallying cries of "community empowerment" and "community control" with which the school boards began.

Supporters see it differently. School boards have been scapegoats, they say, for the failures in the educational system. Whatever their flaws, they are in some ways a more open and democratic institution than many others in New York.

COMMUNITY CONTROL

Community school boards began with the grandest of intentions, and amid the deepest of controversies. The 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Ed, combined with a 1966 federal report that concluded that the system, not individual students, was to blame for their educational failure, led to demands by parents and local communities to have more direct control of their schools.

In 1967, the Ford Foundation financed "demonstration" school districts as an experiment in what was called decentralization in three areas of the city, one of which was in a part of Brooklyn called Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

A large fracas began when the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Governing Board, comprised of nine parents and three community leaders, announced its intention to transfer 19 school employees, including 13 teachers, out of the district for allegedly sabotaging efforts at decentralization. Supporters of the employees charged the ousters were ethnically based. Amid charges of racism and anti-Semitism, the United Federation of Teachers went on strike over the issue, and its president Albert Shanker. went to jail. Eventually the teachers were reinstated, though all transferred to other districts. The State Education Department took over as the interim authority of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district.

Though conflict had marred the experiment, most believed that decentralization was a worthwhile principle, and so in February of 1969, the state legislature passed a decentralization law creating the 32 school districts in New York. Specifically, the new law empowered school boards to hire the district superintendent, as well as school administrators such as principals and assistant principals.

LOW TURNOUT, LONG WAIT VS. INCLUSIVE, INNOVATIVE

Back in the 1960s, a popular button read, "Suppose they gave an election and nobody came." With turnouts hovering nowadays at around five percent, the community school board elections come close. Elections for school board members are not even held on Election Day. They are held in May, every three years; the next one will be in 2002.

But that is not the only way they are different from standard elections. Registered voters can participate in school board elections, but so can "parent voters." Parent voters do not have to be registered. They do not even have to be United States citizens. The only requirement is that they be at least 18 years old and the parent or guardian of a child in a public school. People may vote in either the district in which they live or the district where their child attends school, but not both.

The school board elections employ a proportional voting system. When they go to the polling place, the voters rank those running for nine at-large seats in order of their preference on paper ballots, marking a 1 by their first choice, a 2 by their second and so on up to nine candidates.

According to New York State Assemblyman Steven Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Education Committee, the proportional voting system was designed "to prevent a majority, white or black or whatever, from controlling each and every seat on a school board."

Robert Ritchie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, says the system gives each individual voter a greater role in electing at least one board member.

The result are community boards made up of people that better reflect the diversity of New York. And, even though many complain about lack of voter involvement with school boards today, there is no shortage of candidates. A total of 25 people applied this fall to fill a single opening on School Board 8 in the Bronx.

Critics of the proportional voting system in New York City school board elections, argue that it can be complicated and confusing.

"The problem is that this system is used to elect only one group of candidates every three years," says Rodney Saunders, a member and former president of School Board 11 in the northeast Bronx. "The voting public doesn't fully understand it. and too many people at the Board of Elections don't understand it, so it takes much too long, and those counting the ballots are hard-pressed to get it right."

Further frustrating voters is the weeks it takes to get the results. Saunders says officials don't even start to count the votes until two weeks after the election and then tabulate them by hand.

CLIPPING THEIR WINGS

In the last election, which was held last year, voters may have stayed away from polls because the community boards have so little power. Under the prodding of then-Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, the New York State Legislature in 1996 redefined the responsibilities of local school boards, taking away much of their power, including the authority to name a the district superintendent.

Today, school boards no longer manage day-to-day affairs within the district or hire or promote school district employees, including principals. Instead, the local school boards set educational policy, mostly just by helping to select a superintendent for the school district. Even here they don't have the final say; the chancellor does.

The 1996 law removed much of the rationale for the boards' existence, according to Public Advocate Mark Green, who declared in a speech delivered in April that school boards should be eliminated. "The local school boards were a great idea -- in theory -- but rarely worked in practice," Green stated. "Some became patronage mills, doling out jobs and contracts to friends. Most, now stripped of their powers, are today excess weight in a bureaucracy that needs to be simplified and flattened. It's time for them to go."

DEFENDING THE BOARDS

Rodney Saunders, a strong proponent of the local boards, says he ran for school board, an unpaid position, in 1996 because, after his daughter started kindergarten, he felt he had a vested interest in working to improve the school system. He says some people run for school board after serving as a leader of a school parents' association, while others see it as a first step in entering the political arena. About 30 percent of school board members have children in the school system.

Saunders says, "School board members, as elected officials, can use the power of the parents and the press to call attention to conditions that exist within a specific school or the entire district, such as the need for additional seats or buildings because of severe overcrowding."

He believes that corruption among board members is rare, but that the community boards have been convenient scapegoats. "The press and Board of Education were always blaming school boards for failures," he complains. Now that the community boards have less power, and "we can't be blamed, it's 'the parents' fault' or the 'students' fault.'"

Even Assemblyman Steve Sanders, who was a driving force behind passage of the 1996 school reform legislation, stops short of advocating the complete elimination of school boards.

"We should not have a school system without a place in the structure for parental involvement in decision making," Sanders says. "I'm more comfortable with the way school boards are today."

2002

Whether one is for or against community school boards, doing away with them would not be a simple task. "Just as the 1969 decentralization was by way of enactment of the state legislature, so were the huge changes of 1996 and so would any hypothetical change eliminating school boards," Sanders says. He adds that any change in school governance relating to the voting public would have to be approved, as always, by the United States Justice Department, since three of New York City's boroughs fall under the protection of the Voting Rights Act.

So, once again, a handful of dedicated souls are sure to make their way to local polling places in May 2002 to mark paper ballots for nine people seeking an office with little power and no compensation. And then they will all wait weeks to see who won.

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