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Critics say DOE is overselling chaos of mayoral control expiration

The Bloomberg administration is arguing that chaos and anarchy would result if state lawmakers let mayoral control expire on June 30. But the reality of the school system prior to 2002 pokes major holes in the officials’ argument.

Over the last several days, Mayor Bloomberg has likened the resurrection of the pre-2002 decentralized school system to the return of the Soviet Union and has forecast widespread chaos. In a memo released today, Department of Education officials outlined how the system will become gridlocked if the law expires and the current power structure breaks down.

But the department’s memo rests on assumptions that people familiar with the pre-2002 governance structure picked apart in interviews today.

“I think a return to the Board of Education structure would be most unfortunate because of the tension, the politics, and the lack of coordination that the structure causes,” said former chancellor Harold Levy. “But it’s clear to me that the mechanics of having it function would be perfectly doable provided that the Board itself was reconstituted by the borough presidents.”

“They’re crying wolf. They’re catastrophizing,” said former general counsel to the Board of Education, David Bloomfield.

Two borough presidents outlined plans today that they said would orderly steer the school through a surprise change in law, if no new one is passed in the next five days.

The DOE’s argument is that the central problem would originate in the community school boards, which “would spring back to life,” but under the pre-2002 law, would not be able to elect members until May 2010. Without local school boards, the argument goes, there would be no official superintendents. This would produce a doomsday scenario in which there would be no authority to hire or fire teachers or oversee summer school promotions.

“There is a real possibility that there will be no community superintendents after June 30,” the memo states.

But people who worked under the old system say the DOE is fear-mongering.

“The sky will not fall on July 1st and most of the things that are needed to keep the school system going would continue,” said Steven Sanders, who served as chair of the Assembly’s Education Committee from 1995 to 2005.

Sanders, who co-wrote the 2002 law, believes the Senate will act in time to preserve mayoral control, but if it does not, most of the existing policies will remain. Rather than appointing trustees to fill community school boards, the DOE could get a court ruling permitting the Community Education Councils, which were created in 2003, to function as the school boards once did, he said.

Bloomfield, who helped draft the 1996 school governance law that would be resurrected if mayoral control expires, said the power vacuum the DOE envisions would not arise. Instead, a reconstituted Board of Education would be able to appoint a chancellor who would then fill the community school board seats by appointing what are known as “trustees” until elections could be held. These interim trustees would appoint superintendents, who would function normally.

“And meanwhile the rest of the bureaucracy would go along on its merry way under the chancellor,” he said.

According to the DOE’s reading of the law, the chancellor can only appoint trustees to the community school boards if board members have violated the law. In this case, without any law breaking members in existence to begin with, the power to name trustees is nonexistent, the memo says.

People familiar with the pre-2002 system said chancellors appointed dozens of trustee school board members even when there weren’t violations of law.

Under the previous governance structure, chancellors routinely appointed trustees to boards “from time to time,” Bloomfield said, and there was no requirement that the member had to have broken a law. Often, chancellors appointed trustees when boards were dysfunctional. There were also instances of chancellors overruling school board elections and naming trustees in place of an elected person.

A source familiar with the Board of Education structure prior to mayoral control said that aside from naming trustees, chancellors regularly went over the head of dysfunctional school boards to appoint interim acting superintendents.

“There would decentralized authority but the authority would be there,” Bloomfield said.