Reforming the Board of Regents: Who Do the Regent Members Represent? Parents? the Public? the Legislators Who Elected Them? Or, Themselves?

The New York State Board of Regents, established by the legislature on May 1, 1784 is the oldest, continuous state education entity in the nation. The members represent each of the 13 judicial districts in the state and four members are at large. The members of the Regents select a Chancellor, in effect the chair of the board. The regents serve five year terms and are elected by a joint meeting of both houses, the 150-member Assembly and the 63-member Senate. There are many more Democrats than Republicans in the sum of the houses; in the real world of politics the democratic majority in the Assembly “elects” the regents. In recent years the Republican members of the Senate refused to attend the election session.

Unofficially the Democrats who represent a judicial district play a major role in the selection of the regent. As with all legislative items Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the Assembly is the gatekeeper.

Incumbents are usually reappointed to a successor term, although last year Regent Jackson was not reappointed. The failure to appoint Jackson had nothing to do with his performance; it was a dispute among the members of the Assembly.

You would think that because of the nature of the selection process the selectees would be political, not so. The regents members have impeccable resumes: three former NYC superintendents, lawyers, a judge, a doctor, and college professors, all with roots in their communities.

The members are unsalaried and have no staff.

The regents meet for two days monthly (except August) in Albany, the May meeting is usually in another city in the state.

The regents select the Commissioner of Education who serves at the pleasure of the Board.

The full board meetings are webcast, the committee meetings are not.

The board work is done in a number of committees; the committee meetings are open to the public. The meetings usually begin after the initial full board meeting and take place one after another for the remainder of the day on Monday and continue Tuesday morning. A full board meeting usually takes place on Tuesday at the end of the succession of the committee meetings. Formal actions can only take place at the full board meetings. Changes to regulations, after approval by the committee are posted for public comment and come back to committees, reflecting the comments, and approved by the full board.

There is no opportunity for public comment at board or committee meetings, written formal public comment is the only “official” opportunity for input, although regent members receive hundreds of e-communications urging support or opposition for issues.

Agendas are set by the commissioner, probably with input from the chancellor.

The agenda and backup documents are extensive. The “Agenda and Materials” for the November meeting (see here ) are lengthy and extremely detailed.

The Monday full board meeting is informational, at the November meeting a new report, the Where Are They Now Report tracked students after they leave high school in New York State. After the meeting a number of superintendents were sharply critical of the accuracy of the report.

The full board meeting takes place in the ornate “Regents Room,” with portraits of former chancellors adorning the walls. The regent members and the commissioner sit at the table with the audience sitting around the room. At the succession of committee meeting, held in a larger room there are chairs for a hundred or so visitors, the K – 12 committee is usually full.

The “Charter Schools: Initial Applications and Charters Authorized by the Board of Regents.” item on the agenda is pro-forma, the state ed staffer gives a brief outline and the recommendations are approved, occasionally questions arise over the reauthorization of a charter, if the performance is lagging the school may be authorized for less than five years. The regent representing the area of the school usually comments and the item is approved. Wade Norwood, the Regent from Rochester was not present at the November meeting.

The regents approved a new Rochester charter, a few days later the media was filled with reports: the lead sponsor is a 22-year old with a fraudulent resume; he resigned from the charter board after the media reports.

Who is at fault? The SED staff? The Rochester Board member? Will the Regents re-examine the approval?

There have been too many issues in which the commissioner appears deaf to the public.

The regents are a policy Board, they set overall policy for the state and it is the role of the commissioner to implement the policy.

There is always a tension between the board and the commissioner. On the current board three members were superintendents (Regents Cashin, Rosa and Young), one Regent (Regent Tallon) was the majority leader of the Assembly, Regents Dawson and Bennett has served as regents for more than twenty years. The commissioner has far less experience on the ground, far less experience dealing with communities, unions and the complex political demands.

Controversial items may linger for meeting after meeting until the board members come to agreement or the issue fades away.

Regents Cashin and Rosa, both with decades of experience in leadership roles have challenged decisions; teacher evaluation, the test regimen, and the current edTPA exams. The major criticism has been the lack of evidence to support decisions and the failure to respond to criticisms from parents, teachers, principals and superintendents. While a few other regents are clearly uneasy with a number of issues they have generally gone along with decisions.

There will be two regents vacancies in this year, Regent Chapey resigned in July and Regent Phillips announced he will not be seeking another term and five incumbent regents will be seeking another term: Regent Tilles (Nassau-Suffolk), Cashin (Brooklyn), Young (at-large) and Regents Bennett and Dawson

Last spring, at the height of the criticism of the state testing fiasco a conscientious and knowledgeable legislator asked me, “Does this opposition to Common Core testing have a bill number?” Legislators were receiving hundreds of e-mails asking the legislators to intervene – intervene in what? The regents and the commissioner created a political minefield, a minefield that was a political issue beyond the ability of legislators to resolve.

Will legislators seek to elect new regents more likely to respond to the political needs of legislators? More responsive to parents and teachers? Will legislators seek to replace some of the incumbent regents? Once again, to select new regent members who are more open and sensitive to the political process? And, the larger question: who does a regents member represent?

Over the last few weeks Chancellor Tisch has supported increasing the cap on charter schools and threatened to close the 94 schools in the NYC School Renewal Plan.

Is the chancellor speaking for the regents? or, is she expressing her own opinion? Of course increasing or eliminating the charter cap is not a decision made by the regents; the cap is set in law.

Can the chancellor or the commissioner intervene and force the Renewal Schools to close? Well, according to Hank Greenberg, the regents-appointed Fiscal Monitor, in a devastating report on East Ramapo, tells us no matter how outrageous the actions of the school district, the commissioner has no power to intervene. To remedy the raping of the East Ramapo schools Greenberg recommends: diversity training??? If the commissioner does not have the authority intervene in East Ramapo will he intervene in New York City?

The sharp criticism of the regents raises serious questions:

* Who do the Regents represent?

The legislature that appointed them, the constituents in their judicial district, or, do they make decisions based on their own knowledge and experiences.

* Should the Regents become more transparent and interactive?

All meetings should be webcast, the public should have the opportunity to speak at Regent Meetings; the public speaks at town and city council meetings, at school board meetings, even at UFT Executive Board meetings any member can speak. The regents should hold public forums around the state to allow public input. Transparency is crucial for public institutions, especially with institutions that make decisions that impact the children of the state.

* Should the commissioner have the ability to remove or discipline school boards?

In my view, the commissioner should not have the authority to remove school boards without a process, perhaps an external body that can review reasons for removal.

* Should the current property-taxed based system of school finance continue? Or, should all school funding reflect a state-wide formula?

To allow the current system in which the richest districts spend double the per capita spending of the poorest district is disgraceful. The poorest districts, districts in rural communities are effectively bankrupt. The lack of a tax base should not doom students to an inferior education.

* Do we really need 700 school districts in New York State?

The Cuomo Education Commission made a number of recommendations; one was to consider the consolidation of the 700 school districts, a recommendation that did not have legs. Perhaps there are ways to consolidate services…. for example: should all legal services become the responsibility of regional state ed offices?

The Board of Regents should take a serious look their own functioning, the public has clearly lost confidence in the board, either the board reforms itself or the governor/legislature will make reforms. Trying to “manage” crises eventually leads to the public forcing reforms; rather than defending, organizations should remember: change can be a healthy process when it involves all stakeholders.

Defending the indefensible is always foolish and futile.

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