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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Testimony on Mayoral Control For Assembly Education Committee

I testified at Friday's Assembly Education Committee hearing on school governance. Thanks to Assembly Chairperson Cathy Nolan and Assembly Members O'Donnell, Brennan, Kavanaugh and Benedetto for their attention.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am Patrick J. Sullivan, the Manhattan Representative to the Panel for Educational Policy appointed by Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer.

Over the last year, Borough President Stringer has recommended a number of revisions to the school governance structure. I will summarize those recommendations in my testimony, but I would like to focus today illustrating why these changes are necessary based on my experience on the PEP.

Make the Board a More Effective Check and Balance Mechanism

With regard to the PEP, we recommend several measures to strengthen the board so as to serve as a more effective check and balance mechanism against abuse of mayoral control and to more effectively represent the viewpoints of parents:
  1. The terms of the members should be fixed rather than having them serve at the pleasure of the appointing official.
  2. The board should be reduced to include fewer mayoral appointees.
  3. The authority of the city board should be clarified with regard to policy and budgetary approval.
Transparency and Customary Rules of Order

In my experience I have seen how the lack of independence of the PEP members has allowed the Chancellor to manage the PEP with complete disregard for how a board of directors should function. For example:
  • Meeting agendas are typically distributed only a few days in advance.
  • Presentation materials are rarely made available to members before the meeting. When they are provided it is typically within 24 hours of the meeting.
  • Under its bylaws the PEP is supposed to meet in executive session once a year to discuss how to improve its functioning but this meeting has not been held, at least since I joined 22 months ago.
  • Members may request roll call votes under the bylaws but my attempts to do so have been refused.
  • There are no transcripts. Meeting minutes have not been not distributed since early 2007.
  • There is no audit committee.
  • Investigative reports of the Special Commissioner for Investigation are not provided to the board as required by executive order.

These poor practices serve to obscure the workings of the board and inhibit communication between the PEP members and the public school families they are supposed to represent. A board structured to be more independent, especially with a provision for fixed terms would provide the members with sufficient security to set higher standards for the conduct of the board.

Budget Decisions

I would like to discuss some of the votes where I dissented from the majority positions. I am extraordinarily fortunate to be appointed and supported by Borough President Stringer who has insisted that we always represent the best interest of the children even if it means drawing the ire of the mayor and chancellor. I think these examples will illustrate both how the board functions today and suggest how a more independent one would achieve a more balanced outcome:

Operating Budget

When the Chancellor brought to the PEP a budget that provided steep cuts in operating funds for many schools I objected. I explained that by state law we are tasked with proposing a budget sufficient to fund school operations and we should not send to the City Council a budget that clearly did not do so. We were also asked to approve a high level budget without being presented with sufficient detail to understand the spending. The budget was approved with eight votes in favor and my one against. Nevertheless, the City Council determined that the budget was insufficient to fund the schools and restored enough funds to eliminate cuts. Rather than starting with the funding provided by the mayor and reducing expenditures to achieve his desired balance, a more independent board would put forward a transparent budget with the “total sum of money deemed necessary” as state law requires.

Capital Budget

Similarly with the capital budget we see how the board’s insistence on rubber stamping the mayor’s proposal shortchanges our children. The capital budget vote was especially marred by a lack of candor and transparency. Both DOE and the School Construction Authority asserted that the current plan, now in its final year, would improbably accomplish all its goals: reduction of class sizes to 20 in every classroom K – 3, elimination of portables and an end to split sessions. Furthermore, the administration provided no credible explanation as to how this spending would align with their own class size reduction goals required by Contracts for Excellence statues and regulations. Despite the readily demonstrable inadequacy of the plan, it was passed again with only my one dissenting vote. We now have a new five year plan ready for approval this month yet no needs analysis or assessment has been provided. The PEP is simply told to believe that what the mayor is willing to spend is exactly what the children need. An independent board would require a careful assessment of need be published and spending be aligned with statutory and regulatory requirements.

Special Education System Contract

There is an acute need for the State Legislature to clarify what spending must be approved by the city board. When I read in the press that we would sign $55 million contract for a new special education system, I asked the DOE general counsel if the PEP would vote to approve the contract. I pointed to state law requiring approval of any contract which would "significantly impact the provision of educational services or programming". He explained that the new system “is not changing either the nature of the services we deliver or the manner in which we deliver them” and therefore no vote is required. When I objected on the record at the January PEP meeting, Chancellor Klein questioned what the purpose of such a vote would be. I explained that before voting, I would make sure all the CDECs and especially the CCSE reviewed the system requirements, provided input and preferably issued a resolution or letter endorsing the project and/or stating concerns.
But the Chancellor did not see the need or benefit for such collaboration. CCSE was never invited to provide input. Like me, John Englert, the president of CCSE read about it in the press. The Chancellor explained to me the PEP had been functioning this way for seven years. He didn't see any need to change. Hopefully the Assembly will see to it that the families whose children are served by the public school system have this reasonable and appropriate input into these massive expenditures. I suggest to you that all contracts above some set threshold be approved by the city board.

Policy Decisions

Gifted and Talented Admissions

The new Gifted and Talented admissions policy is a comprehensive failure of educational policy. Ostensibly seeking to improve equity, the Chancellor swept away the various admissions criteria employed by the schools and districts and replaced them with two standardized tests. Like many, I warned Deputy Chancellor Lyles that the new tests, focusing more on preparedness than giftedness, would only shift G&T seats from low income to higher income neighborhoods. Even one of the mayor’s appointees told me I was “100% correct on this issue”. Now the damage has been done with many programs in low income neighborhoods shuttered and new classes skewing even more heavily toward higher income students. A more independent board would never stand for this poorly considered policy.

8th Grade Retention

The original PEP was opposed to the mayor’s testing-based retention policy. As a result, several members were removed in the hours before they were to vote on this controversial policy. When we were asked to vote on 8th grade retention a wide spectrum of academics and community leaders protested the weak underpinnings of the policy and the total absence of any program to improve education in the middle schools. The research and evidence from other similar policies in Chicago and elsewhere demonstrate they are extremely costly and don’t work. Even with a more independent board the mayor may have eventually implemented his policy. The difference is that it would he would have had to couple test-based retention with a real plan for addressing the needs of struggling students with proven approaches including tutoring and smaller classes. I heard Deputy Mayor Walcott explain earlier today how the candid debate we had helped to improve the policy. I would disagree with him and point to how the Bloomberg administration, after contracting with the RAND corporation to study the test-based retention program implemented in 5th grade still refuses to release the research reports to the public. I've brought them here to show you; you can see there are hundreds of pages. This information should be not be surpressed but rather released to inform the debate.

Parental Involvement

I would like to conclude by asking the Assembly to strengthen the Community District Education Councils as bodies representative of the parent perspective. The ambiguity of the law with respect to CDEC duties, responsibilities, and powers must be clarified. In many ways, Community Boards are analogous to CDECs. Our City Charter clearly outlines the functions of Community Boards and there is no ambiguity on which planning decisions they are required to offer opinions. I would urge the State Legislature to use the language in New York City’s Charter with respect to Community Boards as a guide for outlining the duties and responsibilities of CDECs.

I have always sought input from CDECs on policy and budget votes. Requiring advisory votes from CDECs which the PEP members would be expected to follow would be one way to channel parent input into policy decisions.

I hope today I’ve been able to provide you with insight into the functioning of the current citywide board. In its current form the Panel for Educational Policy does not make policy or even meaningfully advise the chancellor. Those roles are reserved for the chancellor's management consultants and the distant foundations of wealthy men: the Broad Foundation, Gates Foundation and Dell Foundation. But we parents know better. The real insight into the challenges of urban education lies in the communities, school leadership teams, PTAs, community councils. We will never have real improvement in our schools until we embrace parents as real partners in the education of their children. I urge you to restore balance, order and even simple decency to the governance of our schools.

Thank you for your time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. Sullivan for speaking the truth on behalf of NYC parents and students.