NEW YORK — IN Brooklyn's Community School District 21, some of the highest-paid employees are wives of members of the district's elected school board, which hired them. In the Bronx's District 9, school-board members were suspended recently and charged with bribery, theft, misuse of funds, patronage, and drug use.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. All told, about a dozen of the city's 32 school boards are under investigation for everything from soliciting bribes from textbook publishers to piano stealing.
When New York City broke its vast school system into community districts, each with an elected board empowered to hire administrators and determine educational priorities for elementary and middle schools, the goal was decisionmaking on a level more sensitive to local needs. But wth considerable evidence that many of the boards are used as patronage and moneymaking opportunities by members who often are also politicians and school employees, the two-decade-old decentralized system is under intense scrutiny.
Today, as voters, including ``parent voters'' (noncitizens with children in the schools) go to the polls to fill the 288 district board seats, education advocates are watching eagerly to see whether political clout will again prevail.
``We hope the spotlight on the elections will get the electorate to notice if the members are politically connected or working in the children's interests,'' says Judy Baum, information director for the Public Education Association, a civic group. But past turnout has been extremelylow (about 7 percent of eligible voters), and many of those charged with improprieties are running for reelection.
The stakes are high. The elected boards have $50 million budgets, hire 500 nonteaching personnel (including $100,000-a-year district superintendents), allocate budgets, and choose textbooks and curricula. Many board members also hold office as legislators and party officials; but much of their power flows from the school board.
``They tend to use their political office as a base for gathering support for their school-board office,'' Ms. Baum says; ``[then] they require people who want to be principals to make contributions to their political club.'' Principals have reportedly paid up to $8,000 for a job.
``At one time you had other groups - political clubs, poverty programs,'' says Stanley Litow, executive director of Interface, an independent education-policy research group. ``Now [the boards] exist as the only [job-controlling] institution on the community level. It's understandable that in neighborhoods in which political factions are strong, they will control a board.''
Baum says the main voting blocs come from teachers' groups, unions, and political clubs. ``The missing element is the parents who are new to the political system of the country and the city. The city is filled with newly immigrant people whose kids go to the schools.''
A new state law designed to clean up the boards by prohibiting politicians and school employees from serving on them was struck down by a federal judge last week. Some reform advocates question the judge's impartiality: His daughter-in-law is an assistant principal who was appointed bya community school board in Brooklyn.
The racial composition of the boards has also been called into question. In four of the districts where most of those enrolled are minorities, all board members are white; in 10 other such districts all but one or two members are white. City schools Chancellor Richard Green has been encouraging parents to run, and many have responded by fielding slates they feel are more representative.
One such slate is running in Queens District 28, where although 80 percent of the students are minorities, seven of nine board members are white. ``They don't live in our area, they don't understand what's going on here in the black area,'' says Betty Shivers, a candidate who works in child development and has a grandchild in a district school. ``I don't see enough books for the kids. There aren't enough after-school programs to keep our kids busy, and not enough tutorials.''
Although some have criticized the concept of decentralization, Mr. Litow contends the path to accountability involves decentralizing even further - to the individual school level. ``People don't identify with their district,'' he says. ``Parents who desperately want a better school system identify with their school.''