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Frank Macchiarola, longest-serving chancellor until Klein, dies

City officials and longtime education insiders today are mourning the death of Frank Macchiarola, who served as chancellor from 1978 to 1983. After he resigned to lead a business and civic group, no chancellor had a tenure as long until Joel Klein.

In fact, even though previous city superintendents had held office for longer, Macchiarola was the longest-serving chancellor until Klein: The title was created when legislators decentralized the city’s school governance in 1970.

Most chancellors during the period of community control ran into trouble with mayor, who nominated them, or the Board of Education, which hired and fired them, but Macchiarola — who started the job at age 37 — left on good terms with Mayor Ed Koch, the board, and the teachers union.

“His tenure as schools chancellor under Mayor Koch proved that bold reforms were possible and helped set the stage for the work we’ve done over the past decade,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement today, and his chancellor, Dennis Walcott, said in a statement of his own that Macchiarola “was instrumental in redefining the role of the principal as the key leader of a school community.”

Here’s how the city’s principals union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, described Macchiarola’s tenure today:

He revitalized direct services to students, opened schools to the community after hours, developed a curriculum and instruction program that served as a national model, relentlessly strived to strengthen special education, and placed a huge emphasis on offering educational support to financially disadvantaged children. He also averted a teachers’ strike, took on the bus industry and published what many educators believed to be the first honest school drop-out report. He was loved and sometimes feared for setting the highest standards for students and educators.

Macchiarola’s New York Times obituary elaborates on his high standards, describing a set of policies that should sound familiar to anyone who has paid attention to city education policy during the Bloomberg administration:

Dr. Macchiarola set about imposing rigorous standards for both students and educators. He replaced more than 60 of the system’s 110 high school principals, rating their performance poor. He blocked automatic promotions for fourth and seventh graders, requiring them to take remedial summer classes or be held back if they failed to meet certain goals. (Almost 25,000 students were left back in June 1981; in later years, the policy sometimes lapsed and was sometimes revived.) …

Before stepping down, he told an interviewer that the school system “would be better off” if its seven board members — five of whom were chosen by borough presidents — were all appointed by the mayor and served without salary. Today the entire system is under the mayor’s control.

But even though Macchiarola’s policies made him something of a proto-Klein, his support for Klein’s tenure was qualified. After Klein exceeded his own time in office in 2007, Macchiarola told the New York Daily News, “He’s moved very quickly, and when you do that, you disrupt a lot of things and make people anxious.”

His own approach, he said in 2000, was more conciliatory, according to his Times obituary:

“As chancellor I constantly prayed not to confuse myself with God,” Dr. Macchiarola said. “They need to find a chancellor committed to providing leadership but who never shuts the door to someone’s ideas, or to the people who harangue and torture you. Otherwise, you end up defending something just because its yours.”

One of Macchiarola’s claims to fame is that he is the only chancellor to serve simultaneously as a principal. In 1982, he spent three months as the interim principal of Jamaica High School to learn, he said, about how high schools work, before handpicking a successor.

”Most of what I have seen here has been a revelation to me,” Mr. Macchiarola told the New York Times a month into his principalship. ”If I ever had any hesitation that money wasn’t being put to useful purposes in the schools that was dispelled.”

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