[from May 2004 issue]


We cannot argue against the proposition that after all these years and three different mayors and countless school superintendents and school board members promised reforms and new approaches have produced nothing other than continuing chaos.

It really has been a scandal of enormous consequences: poorly educated young people emerging into the local workforce but unable to effectively contribute either to the collective economic betterment of the city or to their own individual growth and happiness as human beings. What an unhappy world this dysfunctional school system has created all these many years--it borders on the criminal.

So what to do? We will state up front that we do not profess to have the expertise to offer a proper solution. But what we do believe is that we have sufficient “expertise”--maybe it’s more gut instinct--to state categorically that the mayor’s grand plan to assume control is a bust from the get-go.

It won’t work. Why?

Well, for one thing, before there can be any hope for the proposed turn-over to the city’s executive branch to have any hope of being the solution there has to be trust in the people to whom the operation would be turned over to manage. We do not see evidence that there is that needed trust among the parents and teachers; they are the most immediately affected and therefore the most important in this regard.

Why wouldn’t they trust the ability of the mayor and his army of minions to turn everything around for the better? Probably for the same reason we do not. The track record has been quite underwhelming thus far in this mayoral administration. The mayor believes that if he has the power to appoint and control a superintendent everything will run smoothly and all will finally get fixed. But, when we look back on so many of the mayor’s disastrous departmental appointments, often with virtually no competent vetting seemingly undertaken, we dread what might end up in the superintendent’s chair. We only have to recall his first DPW director, the woman from the small suburban city of Evanston, Illinois who was famous for her maniacal screaming and cursing bouts within the halls of her agency; the fire chief from a suburban jurisdiction in Georgia whose “experience” was more or less confined to supervising a small department with a few trucks and on top of that had faked credentials; a parks director who had to be gotten rid of for some now forgotten reason, but it was a mess at the time--and so the list can go on and on.

If the mayor is so perceptive in finding first-rate people to take over troubled agencies then how can his personnel failures be explained and how can that history give us confidence that he would appoint a superintendent who would be the be all and end all? Just think about it: The closest opportunity he had to influence education policy and outcome--thanks to the scheme he engineered--was the authority he was given to appoint some of his own people to the school board and, on top of that, he succeeded in steamrolling in as chairperson his own hand-picked candidate who a year later he was denouncing and insisting we had to get rid of along with the entire school board which was comprised of some of his own picks!

He wants us to believe that the chairperson he selected is incompetent, notwithstanding that he made the pick, and now he also wants us to have faith that he would be able to pick a superintendent who won’t turn out to be incompetent!

Further, the mayor wants us to believe that if he’s put in charge of education he will devote enormous energy and personal attention to fixing the schools. We don’t believe that for a second. Even his attention to the necessary legislative maneuvering required to see his proposal succeed in the city council has been characterized by lack of attention. At a critical time a couple of weeks ago he was in Paris on some boondoggle, schmoozing with Very Important People, just when all this was to be before the council for action; he only saved his bacon that time because of a vote rescheduling necessitated by a council member’s personal need. Now, with this matter on the agenda again for final action on Tuesday, the 18th, where do we suppose the mayor may be that day? Rome, we are told! Maybe he will be at the Vatican conferring on how his vaunted school voucher steamroller will help pull the Catholic parochial schools out of the red back here.

No, we don’t think he’s really got it in him to perform the really hard work to make things turn around. Lots of platitudes, posturing, and so forth, but no real commitment to the job. So, we say it is best to let things be as they are governance-wise for the present and instead devote energy and resources to making things improve and not to engage in yet more political blowing of hot air. We spend such an incredible amount of money per student, so far beyond the national average, and yet we still confine these kids and their teachers to slum buildings where crime and lack of any real learning run rampant. Focus there now and worry about what to do with the deck chairs another time. Maybe if we fix those boilers in the basements in time for next winter that will be a start in stabilizing the sinking ship of schools.