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Pol looks to tweak mayoral control; many want reform

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Three months before the State Legislature votes on whether to re-authorize so-called “mayoral control” of the New York City public school system, Assemblymember William Colton hosted a discussion last Friday morning to solicit input from parents and principals in District 21.

The State Legislature passed a law in 2002 disbanding the former Board of Education and its 32 school boards and replacing it with a more centralized Department of Education, but the law included a “Sunset Provision” that would make it expire on June 30, 2009.  If the Legislature does not renew the law or pass a new one by this time, the system will revert to its 2002 form.

Colton originally voted against the system, but believes now that “the overall idea behind mayoral control is a positive one, to make one person accountable.”  But he is wary of what he termed the system’s “lack of checks and balances,” and has suggested some revisions to the system.

First, Colton would change the composition of the 13-member citywide Panel for Educational Policy.  Currently, the panel is comprised of eight mayoral appointees and one appointee for each borough president, each of whom serves at the pleasure of whoever appointed them.

Colton believes that this system makes the panel an extension of the power of the mayor and chancellor, and not a check on the mayor’s power.  To empower the Panel, Colton will push to reduce the number of mayoral appointments to five, and give citywide officials like the public advocate, the comptroller, and the City Council speaker the power to appoint one person apiece.  Also, he will push to give appointees fixed terms to foster greater autonomy.

“That way, one person wouldn’t just be able to disregard everyone else in city government,” he said.

But DOE Press Secretary David Cantor said, “Our position that any configuration that would deprive the mayor of the majority of the panel would be calamitous.  In effect, it would no longer be “mayoral control” if they mayor’s policies could be trumped.”

Another measure Colton is pushing for is the creation of an independent ombudsman to whom parents can take complaints.  Colton said this would give parents recourse that they currently lack, and ameliorate their feelings of disempowerment.

“Right now, parents get the feeling that they have nobody to go to.  If they go to the parent coordinator, the parent coordinator is appointed by the principal and is part of the DOE,” he said.

“And the CECs” — Community Education Councils, the largely advisory bodies that replaced the old school boards — “have no power whatsoever.”

Cantor said the DOE has not taken a position on this matter.

Inna Fershteyn, a parent whose three children attend PS 200, agreed with Colton, saying she felt that she had no place to take her concerns.  She described the headache of a DOE decision last year to cancel a Russian language and culture program, characterizing the decision as unilateral.

(After a loud community outcry, the program was eventually restored after three weeks.)

“I had based my whole decision of where to buy my house on this school and this program,” she remembered.  “It shows there needs to be better communication between the parents and the mayor’s office.”

Colton praised Bloomberg, but cautioned: “Just because you have one mayor who is interested in education doesn’t mean they all will be.  Maybe future mayors will use [mayoral control] as a vehicle for political patronage.”

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