Democratic State Assemblyman David Gantt has introduced legislation that would redefine the relationship between the city school board and its superintendent, giving the super much more power and authority than the position now has, relative to the board. His bill would also rename the superintendency: The person holding the job would heretofore be known as the "Chancellor of Schools."
There's little disagreement among the board's seven members concerning one aspect of Gantt's legislation: removing the board from the responsibility of dealing with a host of common administrative matters. State law requires the school board to do such things as select textbooks and approve family leave for district employees --- decisions that most agree can be more easily and appropriately handled by district administrators, at a savings to the district of both time and money.
"I think, technically, we are responsible for picking globes for classrooms," says board member Rob Brown. "There's no earthly reason why the board should be involved in textbook selection. There's no reason for any of that stuff. It's an anomaly, it's a carry-over from a 19th century statute."
"Those are the kinds of very archaic things that educational law invests in boards of education that I think have no business being decided by a board of elected laypeople," says Joanne Giuffrida, a board member who often finds herself at odds with Brown.
However, Gantt's bill would also make it harder for the seven-member board to remove the chancellor --- requiring five votes, rather than a simple majority of four, to do so --- and it would give the chancellor veto power over most board decisions. The board would be able to override the veto, but that would also require a two-thirds, or five-member, super-majority vote.
Here, Brown and Giuffrida disagree, as shown by the terms they use in reference to the super.
"I think [Gantt's bill] is an appropriate rebalancing of the relative power of the board and the chief executive," Brown says in reference to the chancellor's veto power.
"You don't have the hired help overruling you," Giuffrida says. "I just don't see how that's in any way practical."
"Think about what this means," board member Jim Bowers says of the five-vote stipulation in Gantt's bill: "A superintendent could retain his or her position with the support of three board members. You could have district governance being run by a minority [of the board]."
Brown isn't concerned about that prospect, committed as he is to giving the super more say. Board President Shirley Thompson says the five-vote requirement is "one of the areas [of Gantt's bill] that I have to chew on more.
"On one hand, it could be seen as an opportunity for the board to get its act more together," she says. "There are some very basic things that we still don't do well, such as communicate with each other regularly, discuss issues regularly, reach consensus."
Gantt is of a similar mind, though his assessment of the board's performance is, you could say, less diplomatic than Thompson's.
"This is serious business," Gantt says. "This is not about board members sitting over there fighting with each other and allowing the school district to go to pot."
Told of Bowers' concerns about minority rule, Gantt says, "Dr. Bowers has been one of the problems, not the solution."
"You think about it," Gantt says. If four board members seeking to override a veto "can't get together to get an additional vote, then maybe they don't need to be there," he says.
"It means that they're incorrigible and they're unwilling to make the kinds of exchanges that need to be made in order to set policy for kids," Gantt says. "It should not be about their ego, it should be about the education of kids."
On April 21, the board met to consider Gantt's proposal. After a contentious debate over its specifics, it narrowly passed a resolution that endorses the bill in principle, but stops short of embracing its full scope.
Bowers expresses concern that the bill would authorize the chancellor to enter into contracts worth up to $250,000, without board approval. "To me, that gets into the area of appropriation of funds," Bowers says, "and that is a legislative function at that level."
Giuffrida objects to language in the bill that gives the chancellor "authorization to represent the school district before government agencies," as the bill reads. "The board members are elected officials, not the superintendent," she says.
Gantt says the wording of the bill is not meant to preclude board members from meeting with lawmakers, and it could not legally do so, in any case. "School board members are private citizens," he says. "They have a right to go before anybody they wish to, the same way I do."
Giuffrida and Bowers are especially critical of the timing of Gantt's bill, given that he's introduced it in the Assembly at the same time the Assembly and Senate are trying to restore cuts to public education proposed in Governor Pataki's budget. The city school district stands to lose over $30 million in state aid this year, and board members have been lobbying hard to get the funding restored and avert deep cuts in programs and staff.
"It's ludicrous for us to have to grapple with this right now, when we're still trying to figure out what our district's going to look like," Bowers says. "And why throw something out there right now that will fuel divisiveness, when the board is actually working well?"
"The real question I have is, 'What is the motive for this?' and 'What's the rush?'" says Giuffrida. Like Bowers, she says the board had been working well with Manny Rivera, the superintendent it recently hired.
The timing of Gantt's proposal "is not just odd, it's suspect," Giuffrida says. Alluding to previous divisions on the board, she remarks that Gantt's bill is most strongly supported by the faction of the board she and Bowers have butted heads with in the past.
That's just the kind of divisiveness Gantt says his legislation is meant to end, in part by insulating the super from the vagaries of board politics.
He says his bill "has nothing to do with timing," and adds: "I've been working on this bill for some time now, and the fact is, I've watched, for 30 years, the same shenanigans go on at the board level. It's time for us to stop that and be about educating kids."