2001-12-12 / Editorials


Beeps Propose School Board Reform

There is no doubt that one of the biggest problems besetting the borough of Queens is the state of its schools. In more spacious days (only last year) plans were put forward for funding major school construction projects in all but one Queens community school district. Now, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and an economy which even before commercial airliners were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. was beginning a downward slide, the 19 Queens new school projects are among 33 city-wide facing the budgetary ax from the central Board of Education.

One way to try to save some, if not all, of the Queens slice of the school restoration and construction pie, Borough President-elect Helen Marshall feels, is for each of the presidents of the city's five boroughs to be allowed to appoint themselves, if they desire, to a seat on the central Board of Education. Instead of appointing delegates from each borough, the borough presidents themselves would represent their constituents at 110 Livingston St. Marshall is joined in this opinion by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and Adolfo Carrion, Jr., Bronx borough president-elect.

We like this idea, but we have some reservations about it. Leading the list is the fact that the office of borough president would seem to have enough duties and responsibilities attendant upon it to make adding the necessity of attending all central Board of Education meetings the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The schedule of incumbent Borough President Claire Shulman is so crammed already that we frankly don't see how she could fit in one more thing. Nor are the items filling Shulman's calendar meaningless trivia, and obviously none could be eliminated without imperilling a project or panel of vital importance to the borough. Granted, no one seeks elective office in the city of New York with the intention of idling away time. They're not called "public servants" for no reason. No matter how hard a borough president or councilmember's staff works, the elected official works harder and longer--at least it is so with the ones we know.

That brings us to our second qualm with this issue. Given their schedules, every elected official quickly acquires an ability to delegate, and borough presidents are no exception. They are well aware that they can't be everywhere and do everything, and they make selecting staff and naming deputies a priority. If, as is the case with Fields and her appointee to the Board of Education, Irving Hamer, a conflict arises, the borough president can replace someone with whose views he or she is no longer in accord. Equally, an appointee who finds him- or herself at odds with a borough president's policies can resign. Nothing is ever carved in stone.

The city Legal Department is currently investigating to see whether or not the proposal for borough presidents to appoint themselves to the central Board of Education is legal. The "one person, one vote" provision governing board actions would seem to be the snag that could sink the idea. Other critics maintain that the idea would "politicize" the Board of Education. This, too, is another objection that seems without much merit. The board, according to Carrion, is already heavily politicized. Reform, he says, would bring more accountability, not less. Carrion sided with Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg, whose campaign platform included a call for abolishing the Board of Education and replacing the panel with a schools chief answerable directly to the mayor. If such a reform cannot be brought about because the state legislature quashes the idea, as has been the case in the past, then, Carrion reasons, it would be to his and his borough's advantage for him to have a bigger say in the workings of the board--a say which could best be achieved by his direct participation in the board's deliberations.

Marshall feels similarly. "If I'm allowed to do this, it will show the importance of education, and it will enhance the chances of changing things and getting more help for our borough," she told this newspaper's John Toscano. Otherwise, she feels, anyone appointed to the Board of Education "would have to be a top-notch person to be my liaison to the board." So we would think.

If the Board of Education is to consist of two mayoral appointees and, instead of their chosen delegates, the borough presidents themselves, the path of education in New York City might be a good deal smoother than it is now. We can only wait and see what Bloomberg, the new borough presidents and the state Assembly and Senate will decide after the new city administration is sworn in this coming January. It is obvious, though, that any and all measures Marshall can take to try to salvage as much of the school capital plan for the borough as are humanly possible should be supported by all her constituents. The new borough president has made education a priority and so should we all.

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