July 9, 1997

Analysis: Politics Still Reaches Insulated Chancellor

Related Article
  • New York Schools Chancellor Reverses Veto of Local Board's Choice (July 8)

    NEW YORK -- When the state Legislature took away most of the authority of local school boards in New York City last year, its leaders loftily declared that they were cleansing the system of patronage, mismanagement and, most of all, politics. Yet as the recent dispute over the hiring of a district superintendent in Queens shows, the Legislature may have reordered the balance of power in the system, but it did not remove the politics.

    On Monday, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew reversed a decision that he had made less than two weeks earlier and said he would let Community School Board 26 hire a superintendent whom the board had unanimously selected. Crew withdrew his veto of the candidate, Claire McIntee, only after receiving a volley of calls from prominent elected officials, who said they were responding to an outcry from some board members and other residents of the district, which is in northeast Queens.

    Among those who got involved in the dispute were state Sen. Frank Padavan, who represents that section of Queens; Claire Shulman, the Queens borough president; City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Queens native, and Randy Mastro, the deputy mayor for operations.

    Before the new school governance law was approved, elected officials often tried to exert influence on school boards when there were quarrels over superintendents because the boards controlled that position. Now that the Legislature has transferred most of that power to the chancellor, the elected officials have shifted their efforts.

    What is more, school board members, having lost so much authority, are trying to find a way to continue to direct the process, by enlisting the support of other elected officials. District 26, for example, is in a largely white, middle-class area where residents are skilled at getting government to address their concerns.

    Other community school boards, learning from the experience in District 26, may now be emboldened to ask politicians for help in battling Crew.

    "What we are discovering is that this law is creating a new role for politicians," said Diane Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary in the Bush administration who is now a senior research scholar at New York University. "I expect we will see more of this political lobbying going on."

    The question is whether this lobbying is improper. The officials who wrote the legislation altering the school system's structure said they wanted to eliminate the possibility that elected officials could use the community school boards to dole out jobs and reward political supporters.

    The officials who came to Ms. McIntee's defense bristled Tuesday at the idea that they had put untoward pressure on Crew, saying they had intervened as mediators, often after being contacted by constituents who believed strongly in Ms. McIntee. What happened in District 26, they said, is a laudable example of democracy in action.

    They maintained that the fight in Queens was not parallel to the controversies under the old system, when several boards were accused of wide-ranging corruption and cronyism. District 26 is well regarded, and in using his new powers to veto the choice of Ms. McIntee, Crew had not cited patronage but simply said she did not have enough experience.

    "I don't call this political pressure," said Padavan, a Republican who was one of the authors of the school governance law. "I call this an appropriate part of our political system, if you want to use the word politics. But more essentially, an appropriate exercise of responsibility."

    Still, if one of the purposes of the new school structure is to insulate the chancellor from politics as he runs the system, the calls from elected officials could subject him to the same kind of pressure some community school boards used to face.

    Chiara Coletti, Crew's spokeswoman, said Tuesday that he had not felt that politicians were meddling. Under the compromise brokered in part by Padavan, Crew gave Ms. McIntee a one-year contract, instead of the typical three-year contract. He will then re-evaluate her when the contract is up.

    "We believe that it is appropriate that elected officials voice their opinions, because they are elected in part to do that," Ms. Coletti said. She also acknowledged that some of this type of lobbying could potentially veer into the inappropriate. "That's possible," she said, "but this is also a chancellor who is not particularly susceptible to political pressure."

    Several school board members across the city applauded the politicians' intervention, saying that now that the Legislature has removed so much authority from the boards, they have to find a way to influence the process more indirectly.

    "The critical factor is that there has to be checks and balances in the system," said Kathleen Berger, president of Community School Board 2 in Manhattan, who is president of School Boards for Equality, Accountability and Community.

    Ms. Ravitch, the former assistant education secretary, questioned Crew's original decision in District 26, saying it seemed an unusual place to make a stand, given the board's good record. But she said it was naive to think that politics could be purged from the system.

    There will always be such lobbying, she said, involving efforts that can ultimately both help and hurt children.

    "You can envision a situation in which someone was being promoted who had good reason to be stopped, and where the political figures would get together and say, 'If you persist in this course of action, your budget is going to be cut,"' Ms. Ravitch said. "If anyone has ever invented a system to keep politics out of education, I have yet to see it."

    Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company