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To chancellor, Assembly members offer a litany of complaints

At the Manhattan mayoral control hearing, Assembly members are seizing an opportunity they say they haven’t had in four years: the chance to interrogate Chancellor Joel Klein directly.

The chair of the education committee, Cathy Nolan, is leading the interrogations with personal examples of her own difficulties as a parent. She said she has been hung up on by a school official she called trying to get information about her son. “Not everybody is having an ideal experience, chancellor,” she said.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal complained about a lack of transparency, saying that she had resorted to using a Freedom of Information Law request to find information on class size data that state law requires the city to provide — and then finally got a CD with the wrong data on it.

Nolan then piped up saying she had the same experience.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, shaking his head. He then asked Rosenthal to keep him posted on her access to data the next time she makes a request.

Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell challenged Klein’s claim that mayoral elections are a sufficient check on chancellors’ authority, pointing out that Mayor Bloomberg is favored to win a third term. “With a hundred million dollars, I could probably convince the city of New York that I was thin,” O’Donnell said.

Assemblyman James Brennan also challenged the chancellor on the extent of “democracy” in the system. “I just question whether or not there would be a cataclysm if you have to persuade two people,” Brennan said.

Mark Weprin criticized Klein’s effort to “empower” principals by giving them more authority. “I think you’ve created 1,500 orphans,” Weprin said. “These principals don’t know what to do with this power if they don’t have the support staff.”

Weprin also said he believes Klein is breaking the law by having school district superintendents spend only a small proportion of their time actually overseeing the schools in their geographic area. “These school districts were put into law for a purpose and I believe you’re violating the law,” Weprin said. “To paraphrase George W Bush, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice – well, we ain’t going to get fooled again.”

Assembly members also complained about school siting decisions and the state of parent councils that are often short members and not especially active.

Nolan, the chairwoman, repeatedly apologized for taking so mich time to ask questions and criticize. “I don’t think we’ve had an Assembly hearing where we’ve had you in at least four years, so people have to bear with us,” Nolan said. “We have a lot of anxious members.”

Klein defended himself passionately, arguing that mayoral control is a democratic governance structure, not an authoritarian one, as some members painted it.

“The state commissioner serves at the pleasure of the Regents. The education secretary serves at the pleasure of the United States President,” he said. “You want you people to take sometimes controversial positions.”

Klein also said he takes responsibility for mistakes and wants to work to improve parental involvement.

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