The NEW Department/Board of Education: Governing, the Federalist Papers and Charismatic, Caring, Transformative Leaders

Mayoral control was praised as a functional approach to running an urban school system. Kenneth Wong, a Georgetown scholar, in his 2007 The Education Mayor reviewed the mayoral control cities and concluded we had found a path to managing a school system and raising achievement.

Mayoral accountability as a governance strategy recognizes that for many big-city school districts, the fragmented power structure of traditional school board governance has been a barrier to systemwide reform. By placing control of the school district squarely in the mayor’s hands, the mayor’s electoral fate becomes tied to public school performance. Within this integrated governance framework, the buck stops in the mayor’s office when it comes to district performance.

The buck has stopped, a scant five years later the glitter of mayoral control has faded; public disillusionment, highly questionable data and a combative relationship with teachers, supervisors and parents has doomed the current model.

An April, 2012 Marist poll is a vote against the mayor, a rejection of his stewardship of the school system.

A majority of New York City voters disapprove of the way Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has handled his signature issue, education, and are looking for his successor to take the city schools in a new direction, a NY1-Marist Poll found.


The poll … found that … 56 percent disapprove…


It also found that nearly two out of three — 62 percent — want the next mayor to move in a new direction…


While the public wants the next mayor to move in “a new direction,” that direction is yet to be determined.

Across the nation there is no successful model to emulate.

In Los Angeles a five member school board is elected, the standard pattern in the 14,000 school districts across the nation. A troubled school district, Bridgeport Connecticut is debating a change  in the City Charter that would allow the mayor to appoint the board. At a recent public hearing the speakers opposed the referendum item that will on the November ballot.

“(An) appointed Board of Education (would) not empower the public to meaningfully engage in the selection of Board of Education members, hold them accountable for their actions, or ensure their impartiality in making decisions,”


Judge Carmen Lopez agreed, saying that there was no justification for the change.

“What you’re doing with this charter is suggesting to the rest of the region that your constituents are not as smart as the constituents in Fairfield, in Trumbull, in Stratford,” she told the council. “They get to elect their Board of Education. Here we have to get them appointed?”

Are school boards manned by lay, elected community members an effective way to run 21st century school systems?

One leading critic, former IBM chief executive Louis V. Gerstner Jr., said we don’t need more than 70—one for each state and one for each of the 20 largest districts.

A study questions whether the abolition of school boards is a positive step.

Teachers College, Columbia University, senior fellow Gene I. Maeroff, after combing through the data for and against this battered and bleeding symbol of local democracy, has concluded “there is scant evidence that school systems would be better served if school boards did not exist.”


Maeroff says, the sort of people who want to take away school board powers have their own flaws. He approvingly cites a consultant saying superintendents “move from place to place and rarely commit themselves to a long-term vision, mayors cannot maintain a focus on education, and leadership from business is uneven and crisis-driven.”

Prior to Bloomberg the New York City school board was appointed, one member by each borough president and two by the mayor. The school board, for the most part, was more interested in complying with the political needs of their patrons than the educational needs of the million students.

One iteration, mayoral control, is a tyranny of the majority, another a tyranny of factionalism.

James Madison, in Federalist # 51 writes poignantly about the conundrum of competing factions.

If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Congress is so divided by faction that gridlock is the byword. Virtually all decisions result in months of debate and frequently the “solution” is to kick the decision down the road, delay until the next congressional session.

School boards are not legislative bodies, they are policy boards, or at least, should be. The primary role is to select a leader, whether the leader is called a chancellor or a superintendent or a Chief Executive Officer. The CUNY and SUNY board heads are appointed by the governor and board members; the SUNY Board is comprised of 18 members, 15 of whom are appointed by the Governor, with consent of the NYS Senate. The CUNY Board members are appointed by the governor and the mayor. The Boards meet quarterly.

The Board of Regents is elected by a joint meeting of the state legislature and meets monthly.

The CUNY, SUNY and Regents board members have long resumes of public service and are led by highly regarded leaders.

Should the NYC Board of Education be a policy board, with quarterly meetings, appointed by a combination of the mayor? The city council and, perhaps, the governor and the legislature? How would we define “policy”? That crucial question would have to be defined in the amended law.

Board members must be appointed for fixed terms.

Should we continue to allow the state commissioner to grant waivers so that candidates with limited or no educational leadership experience can be appointed as chancellor? The last four chancellors – Walcott. Black, Klein and Levy all required waivers.

Is there a NYC Chancellor who stands out as a transformative leader?

Some were outsiders: Harvey Schribner, Jerome Green, Rudy Crew, others from within the system; Irving Anker, Ramon Quinones, Anthony Alvarado. Not memorable, except for a few brushes with scandal.

The current mayoral control law reads extremely well, unfortunately the mayor “interpreted” the law.. The 1936 Soviet Constitution reads like an ideal document,

… the Constitution recognized collective social and economic rights including the rights to work, rest and leisure, health protection, care in old age and sickness, housing, education, and cultural benefits. The constitution also provided for the direct election of all government bodies and their reorganization into a single, uniform system.

Stalin? Bloomberg? I won’t go there.

Unfortunately great leadership cannot be presaged. Bloomberg “bought” his third term outspending his opponent 20:1 from his personal wealth, and has paid the price in public opprobrium. Governance documents, be they City Charters or state laws can establish a framework, they cannot guarantee the wisdom, the morality, they cannot mine the soul of the occupant of the office.

I have no doubt if Bill Clinton was the current democratic candidate for president he would be swept to victory. He was, and is, a charismatic leader.

We need a charismatic chancellor.

Dennis Walcott, may be a “nice guy,” he is an embarrassment as the figurehead that supposedly leads the New York City school system. The mayor leads the system, and, he has done an abysmal job.

We need a chancellor who leads, who is looked up to by parents and kids and teachers and principals. An educator who understands teaching and learning and a leader who can mobilize the many, sometimes competing factions that make up this contentious and wonderful city.

Governance, the decision-making mechanism matters, what matters more are the people running the system.


2 responses to “The NEW Department/Board of Education: Governing, the Federalist Papers and Charismatic, Caring, Transformative Leaders

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    In lieu of of futilely hoping beyond hope for a savior superintendent, NYC needs an effective organizational system for operating our schools in the best interests of our children; a fair system of accountability for those privileged to work in it that has a broad base of support; and a talented leader who knows schools and can mobilize support for teachers and principals to do thjeir best work.


  2. David Shulman

    If Bloomberg, as Mayor and in charge of the schools, wanted to really make a difference, here are a couple of suggestions for him.
    1. Leave the running of the schools to the professionals.
    2. Create some supports that NYC schools have needed for years:
    A) bring the power of City agencies to bear on the neglect of children by their parents and guardians by examining the homes of children who are absent from school without medical excuse for 10 or more days.
    B) examining the guardianship of parents who remove kids from schools to visit out of town/country relatives and thereby miss school.
    C) examine the legitimacy of child guardianship for students in the NYC schools. It appears that numbers of kids are not being looked after properly by their alleged guardian with significant numbers actually being boarded with a friend or relative. This should include the childs feeding and clothing as well as housing. Encourage reports from schools and act on the concerns.
    D) be responsive to (and encourage from schools) reports about guardians or parents of kids who are no-shows except when a document from the Department of Welfare is needed or a transportation pass is needed. These kids are being used for fraud and being abused simultaneously.

    This list is far from exhaustive, but would be a place to start. Schools need Mayoral support, but in the areas of Agency cooperation, not the kind of policy interference we have seen for a decade.

    OBTW, I’m betting that you won’t see any of the kinds of kids suffering from these issues in the Charter schools–the Charters either won’t let them in or will figure a way to “council” them out!


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