Thursday, April 9, 2009

What If They Gave an Election and Nobody Ran? Less Than One-Third of NYC School Districts Will Have Meaningful CEC Elections

On Tuesday (April 7), the NY Daily News reported that the number of candidates for the 307 elected parent positions in the thirty-four Community Education Councils (CECs) has plunged from 690 in 2007 to just 443 this year, a drop of 35.8% in parents who are volunteering for seats on those district-level bodies. Each of the 32 geographic school districts offers nine such elected positions, the special education District 75 offers nine more, and the Citywide CEC for high schools offers ten (two per borough).

At a time that the DOE is making a massive and expensive effort to engage public school parents in a meaningless, Internet-based “straw vote” intended as input to the final election by PTA/PA Presidents of each district’s CEC members, the response among current and prospective parent leaders is largely a huge yawn. Many parent leaders will simply not abide the restriction that membership in a CEC prohibits them from officer positions in their PTA and PA organizations of their own children’s schools, while others have tired of the powerlessness and irrelevance to which the DOE has relegated the CECs.

The Daily News contends that five districts among the 34 did not have enough candidates to fill the nine seats available. According to the DOE’s own Power to the Parents website, however, the correct number appears to be seven districts (1, 8, 12, 16, 19, 21, and 75) with insufficient candidates to fill the seats, and that’s still does not appear to be the whole story. Four more districts (13, 14, 28, and 32) have just nine candidates, effectively making elections in those districts moot as well due to lack of opposition – no candidate can lose as long as they get at least one vote. Thus, eleven of the City’s thirty-four districts (32.4%) will at best be holding meaningless elections for which the parental “straw vote” are doubly meaningless.

Beyond these eleven under-enrolled districts, there are six districts (4, 11, 17, 20, 22, and 30) with just ten candidates and four more districts (6, 9, 23, and 27) with just eleven candidates. If one takes as reasonable an election in which at least twelve candidates are vying for nine positions, then just thirteen NYC school districts (38.2%) reach that fairly minimal cutoff. A quick scan through the candidate profiles in the districts with just ten or eleven choices indicates that some of those are fairly marginal, suggesting that those districts may in practical terms be closer to having nine candidates than the numbers alone indicate. For example, one candidate wrote nothing more than, “I teach my child. So I know how I have to do this,” while another candidate’s entire statement reads simply, “I am a people person.”

The DOE has been busy spending scarce money trying to convince parents to participate in an ostensibly inclusionary “straw vote” that is both meaningless and intended as a public relations proxy for real parental voice and real parental inclusion. Unfortunately for them, the parent leader public has largely rejected the Community Education Councils and left the DOE with an embarrassing dearth of candidates in all but a handful of districts. An already patently ineffectual excuse for parent participation and involvement in NYC school policy-making, driven by public relations, now looks even more pathetically irrelevant. That's no mean accomplishment.


Leonie Haimson said...

Great column, Steve. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been wasted on this meaningless exercise; and what about the supreme irony inherent in the name of the website of the organization hired to promote the straw poll --

Michael Fiorillo said...

Kudos on your post, and this important site.

A terrible irony is that lack of voter participation was often given as one of the reasons for eliminating decentralization and elected community school boards. But now that education in NYC is completely controlled by Big Men, I suppose that's not an issue.

Marco said...

This column is misleading.

1. In 2007 most of the candidates (it seemed to me) were ineligable (members of PTAs etc). There was no effort to ensure the eligibly of candidates and like any corrupt/inefficent system - it was abused and overpopulated by people who shouldn't have been running in the first place. Perhaps a reason for the drop? A point not even considered in this post.

2. What would you like the DOE to do? Parents won't run for offices so they try outreach and streamlining the election. Outreach/election are less than half the cost as they were last term but yet you think they're wasteful. Where's the balance? What's your solution? Instead of tearing everything down how about you build a constructive and meaningful arguement with tangible counter proposals and suggestiongs

Lastly, Leonie, you feel really negative to me right now. Maybe you should redirect your energy toward something that isn't so hopeless as "fixing" the DOE.

Anonymous said...

Leonie and Michael, I disagree that Mr. Koss' post was any good as well as your comments. First off Leonie, if you look at the cost of conducting the current CEC election compared to years past, this one only cost $500,000, or 60 percent less than the $1.3 million spent in 2007. Go read a press release from the DOE and you'll find this information before you start mouthing off about wasting money. It seems to me that Mr.Koss doesn't want to be balanced in what he is reporting. Yes Michael, ONE of the reasons for eliminating decentralization was the poor voter turnout, BUT THE MAIN REASON for the dismantaling of that old structure was the patronage perks and outright THEFT OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS by board members who (and here is what I would call irony) had NO children in public schools. Say what you want about those CEC that will have several vacant slots or the districts that had only a few candidates to choose from, but at least these Councils have an inherent desire to improve the situation in their local schools because their children attend them. In the past it was all about only helping those schools that would vote for specific school board members and as you already noted Michael, the turnout there was dismal too. Last thing, as far as the straw vote goes, ANYTHING that would give a PTA leader more information on how to vote is a good thing but I'm sure that Mr. Koss feels the PTA he represents is intellectually inferior so he doesn't care much for what any of them feel anyway.

Patrick J. Sullivan said...


The DOE received extensive advice from parents, especially standing CECs and District Presidents Councils on how to better manage the election process. And in October of 2008 when I first learned about the proposed "straw poll" at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting I urged DOE to drop it and instead focus on early and extensive outreach. I specifically asked that the key election events be scheduled well in advance.

All of this advice was ignored. Instead, the key dates in the elections -- briefing the Presidents Councils on holding the forums and the candidate forums themselves -- were announced a couple of weeks at most before they happened. My PTA schedules and announces elections eight months in advance, why does DOE do it only two weeks in advance?

And if you are going to have a poll, why start it the week of Passover/Easter and a seven day public school holiday?

DOE did an appalling bad job managing the elections. No informed person would disagree.

Just because you don't know about parent efforts to improve the elections, don't assume they didn't happen.

And if you want to hear wonderful things about the Bloomberg record on education, then I direct you to Learn NY, the Fund for Public Schools and the DOE Press Office who each have multi-million dollar campaigns to sell the mayor's record.

Someone needs to point out what's not working and needs to be better.


Patrick J. Sullivan said...


I see recent corruption scandals engulfing our governor, state comptroller, senate majority leader and a myriad of lesser electeds yet no one calls for the elimination of those offices. I think the people who hold CEC positions do a fantastic job but the chancellor and DOE need to show them the respect they are due instead of simply ignoring them.

As for the money being wasted, $500K is still a lot of money given the cuts being taken in the classroom even if it is less than what was squandered last time.

As for the "straw poll", the law is specific about who votes. If the mayor and chancellor want someone else to vote, then they should go up to Albany and change the law. PTA officers should solicit input and parents should offer it. But meaningless votes are simply insulting to both parents and the PTA officers asked to make the decisions.


Leonie Haimson said...

Marco: outreach could be fundamentally improved but because DOE doesn't know how to communicate with parents this is pretty hopeless. Most important would be to make the role of CEC member meaningful, but this the DOE refuses to do.

I'm sure the DOE would love me to turn my attention to something less hopeless than reforming the process, but no such luck, at least at the present time.

Anonymous: as Patrick said, $500,000 is still alot of money, at least to people outside of Tweed and their lackeys. Of course, it is less than the $1.3 million they wasted before, so I guess they should get a little credit there.

And if you knew your history, you would realize that Community School Boards lost the power to hire and fire and to handle any sums of money years before they were abolished to make way for Mayoral control.

Finally, you are also showing your ignorance in your comments on Steve Koss. He happens to be a very active and involved PTA president -- and clearly would welcome anything that truly empowered PTAs or parents.

Steve Koss said...

If the CEC's were truly meaningful, empowered organizations providing a vehicle for parent voices at the district level (and, in combination, at the Citywide level), I suspect there were be a plentiful supply of parent candidates.

The DOE's P.R. machine (backed by the Daily News and NY Post editorial boards) does not hesitate to trumpet their view that charter school applications in Harlem show how parents are voting against the existing local public schools with their feet. Well, I would argue that parent leaders across the city are voting with their feet as well, against the irrelevance and ineffectuality of the CEC's as they currently operate.

Sorry folks, you're simply not allowed to have it both ways and define causation to match your own convenience. Some of us actually understand that concept as well as the nuances of more complex argumentation.

Marco said...

So lets say you're right about parents voting with their feet and ignoring the CEC elections. What's the solution?

To tell you the truth I had no reason to pay attention to the Public School system pre-Mayoral Control but from what my parents say (and why they sent me to Catholic School) the old system was even more dysfunctional than it is now. Centralization (and by extension mayoral control) allows for a measure of equality in the public school system. Instead of your school being at the mercy of your district's resources, there's an effort to manage the system as a whole.

How do you balance meaningful parental involvement with effect policy and institutional management by professionals?

Steve Koss said...


I can't really speak to the "old days," not having been an NYC public school parent at that time. I do, however, see any number of comments from parents and parent leaders suggesting that the "old days" were not necessarily so bad when it came to parents having a voice and getting a response to their issues from their local districts.

As to the solution regarding parental involvement, that's a more extensive discussion. In brief, I would suggest that local district offices DO, in fact, play an important role as contact and input points for parents and should be re-instituted. As for CEC's, they will be increasingly disregarded and abandoned by parents unless and until someone (NYS, the Mayor and Chancellor, or ???) give them a meaningful purpose, a legitimate voice, a set of responsibilities, and a sense that they're being listened to. Having been a CEC member myself, I know the feeling of having to go to meetings every month (separate from PTA/PA meetings) to sit in a nearly empty room (few if any parents in attendance) and talk more or less just for the sake of talking without any prospect of feeling you'll be listened to by the DOE hierarchy. Who wants to keep doing that for months on end, all the while knowing that you're also being prohibited from officership in your child's school's PTA/PA?

The overall solution is rather more complex, but the bottom line is simple human nature: if you want more parent involvement, you'll only get it if the people whose involvement you want feel that they are being both listened AND responded to, that their ideas and concerns are taken seriously and reflected (at least partially and/or occasionally) in the ultimate DOE decision-making process. Most involved parent leaders know well that this is not the case and that their best bet is to focus on their own children's schools where they have a chance of being listened to and respected.