I picked up the phone; it was Yetta, Al Shanker’s secretary, “Al wants to speak with you.” As one of the youngest UFT District Representatives I usually sat entranced as Al and the union elders dominated every meeting, not responding to Al’s phone calls.
Al asked, “Tell me about Frank Macchiarola.”
The Central Board was about to select the next chancellor and Frank Macchiarola was chairman of my school board – we had occasionally dueled, usually worked well on a range of difficult issues.
The first few school board elections were hotly contested, in my district 35,000 voters with many candidates. The election was a complex proportional representation system. Frank was elected on the “CUE” slate – Catholics United for Education that rapidly became Citizens United for Education. The CUE slate of four candidates was actually the creation of the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club using the local parishes as a voter base.
Frank was accused of favoring Catholic principal candidates over Jewish candidates. At a school board meeting I asked, “Dr. Macchiarola, if two candidates for principal were equally qualified would you agree that the candidate representing the underrepresented ethnic or religious group should be selected?” Frank agreed. The audience was upset and some accused him of favoritism.
At the next meeting Frank called me aside, “You paid more attention in the cross-examination class than I did.” It didn’t happen again.
Frank was brilliant, politically astute with strong views about education – and he was an excellent listener.
If I was going to speak at a school board meeting I’d do research and try to find some relevant quote from St Augustine or other iconic early scholar. Frank would engage and explain how I misinterpreted the actual meaning of the quote - it was fun – intellectually challenging and a way of gaining respect – Frank did not suffer fools gladly.
District 22 was sharply divided by race – the northern section of the district Afro-American, poor, overcrowded schools with many recent Caribbean immigrants while the southern section was white, lovely private homes with underutilized schools.
Frank supported creating a “frozen zone;” addresses in the northern part of the district became part of the zones of schools in the southern end, an elaborate busing program that integrated schools. It was enormously controversial, Frank steered the plan through the school board. It was the right thing to do, it would avert a law suit and possible imposed forced busing and would allow the district to apply for federal dollars – over the years the district received tens of millions of federal bucks.
It was typical Frank: it required uniting the school board, building political and community support, fending off harsh criticism and remain above the nastiness of the fray.
As chancellor I noticed Frank changed the name of the Step 3 grievance hearing officer to chancellor’s representative, and, the union lost most of the cases.
“Frank, why are you turning down most grievances?” He explained, “They’re not independent, they work for me, I expect them to support my principals, if I get too many grievances from a school – I’ll find a new principal.” And he did, in his five years as chancellor he replaced more than half of high school principals.
Educators were political naïfs and politicians educational troglodytes. Frank was that unheard of combination: a scholar, and educator with political DNA.
Rumors abounded that Frank wanted to run for comptroller – the political gods were unkind, or were they? As President of St. Francis Frank found his calling – moving a good college to a great college.
For the thirty years since Frank left as chancellor school district leaders have come and gone – some from inside the system, some educators from other venues and recently a string of non-educators (Levy, Klein, Black, Walcott). None have the combination of intellect, understanding of schools, the ability to work with the unions and a deep understanding of the political process.
I stood on line with hundreds at St. Francis to pay my respects. We need another chancellor with the rare combination of talents that Frank brought to the job.