THE man in charge of the nation's largest school system is only half joking when he says: ``We're trying to bring the New York City schools into the 20th century - forget the 21st!'' New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, who hit the deck running three months ago when he took on his new job, has just showed a reporter his proposed catch-up budget for school repairs. The schools, short on maintenance staff, have a $500 million repair backlog that could soon become a $1 billion, he says.
Yet physical repairs are only part of the restructuring he intends for New York's schools.
As superintendent of the Miami-Dade County schools for the last two years, Mr. Fernandez instituted a widely hailed program for school-based management. When recruited for the post here, he made sure city officials would support a similar effort.
The new chancellor has moved boldly on personnel issues, partly to meet a required $69 million budget cut this year and partly to build more accountability into the system. He is paring the 5,200 jobs at central headquarters by about 700, including 275 transfers. He has removed three principals and two district superintendents.
A few days ago Fernandez appointed three trustees to take over the financial operations of one of the 32 elected district school boards that set policy for and channel funds to city elementary and junior high schools. Roughly a third of those boards are under investigation on corruption and patronage charges.
Fernandez also pushed hard to eliminate the state's unique law that in effect gives building tenure to principals. Through a legislative change and an agreement since negotiated with the principals' union, he can now transfer those whose performance does not measure up. ``People said it couldn't be done but we won on that one,'' he says.
``Fernandez is cracking down and it's good,'' says Jeanne Frankl, executive director of the Public Education Association, a citizen advocacy group. ``To some extent the cleanup is long overdue. We're hopeful about the reforms but we're also a little worried that some of the good features of our system are being neglected.''
In one sense New York City's elementary and junior high schools have been decentralized for 20 years through the 32 district boards. Fernandez now wants teachers, administrators, and parents to have a stronger voice in what is taught, the timing and methods, and in how money is spent.
Though he seeks a stronger role in selecting district superintendents, Fernandez says he's not trying to change the boards' role or eliminate them. ``They're there by law,'' he says. His office is within its authority - ``going right up to the line without crossing it'' - in setting standards and holding boards accountable, he says.
Fernandez views all parts of the school climate - academic, social, physical - as inescapably part of his job. Today he has been talking with transit authorities about a pilot program to set aside special patrolled subway cars for children going to and from school. ``The biggest fear that a New York City parent has today is [whether] ... his kid will get to school OK,'' he explains.
Similarly, conflict resolution programs aimed at stemming violence in the schools are under way. Drugs, crime, homelessness, hunger - all are legitimate school concerns, says Fernandez.
In a sense the energetic Fernandez is returning home. As former Mayor Edward Koch has noted, he talks like a New Yorker. The son of Puerto Rican parents, he grew up in East Harlem. He dropped out of high school, a fact he says embarrasses him and that he urges those introducing him for speeches not to mention.
``I like to tell kids if I weren't a dropout I could be governor,'' he says. Still, the experience may have helped equip him with a certain candor and street-smart savvy that clearly helps in his job.
As a teenager, he joined the Air Force, passed his high school equivalency exam, enrolled on the GI Bill at Columbia University where he took a course from a lively math teacher which led him to become a math teacher after graduating from the University of Miami. In time he got a doctorate from Florida's Nova University.
Since his recruitment last September, Fernandez commuted to the Big Apple every other weekend, holding 162 meetings in four months. This orientation gave him a decided advantage, he says: ``I was kind of like an outsider getting a sense from people in and out of the system as to what was wrong with it.''
Fernandez admits he had an advantage in arriving unencumbered. ``I didn't owe anything to anybody,'' he says.
Still, the reaction to what he's done depends on ``whose turf you're on.... Obviously some people wish I'd go away. Others think maybe I'm moving too far ahead of the troops. And some feel I'm doing it just right.''
Asked about caution, he says it is just not his style and that its absence may be one of his weaknesses. ``I've always been one to kind of aggressively move ahead - but with a plan,'' he says.
Fernandez frequently uses the word accountability, readily including himself. His says everyone's ``feet should be held to the fire'' on performance.
When the city's new central school board is appointed in July, he intends to work with its members to set quantifiable goals and strategies. Monitoring teams, he says, will make unannounced school visits. Ultimtately test scores and attendance records must improve. ``But don't expect us to turn the system around in one year,'' he says.
His ambitious agenda includes a goal that every school without a mainframe computer - 75 percent of the city's total - should have one. By keeping demographic, attendance, and other statistics readily on tap, he says, each school will be better able to adapt programs to student needs.
He also wants to see more minority teachers as ``role models'' for a student body now 80 percent African-American, Hispanic, and Asian.
Fernandez hopes to cut the city's 30 percent dropout rate by 2 percent a year. Under a state program teaming at-risk students with adults, he spends two hours a week with a black 12-year-old from a nearby school.
And he wants each school to publish its own budget - though parents may react strongly to disparities they see. ``We're letting sunshine creep into the process,'' he says. He favors experimentation. He has suggested to public library officials, for instance, that they share space and other scarce resources with schools.
Fernandez is receptive to offers of help from business leaders. He would be willing to work with them in building new schools.
``I don't have any pity for people who say, `business has a motive.'... If IBM ... says, `We want to develop a school of the future and put computers in every room,' I'd jump at it. I'd say, `I think that's fantastic.'''
He also needs help from the Legislature to accomplish his reforms. He wants a $483 million budget increase, a total of $6.87 billion, for the next school year.
His slim black budget book contains no ``wish list,'' just ``needs,'' he says. He also wants legislators' help to eliminate the city's Board of Examiners, which he says duplicates the state's teacher-licensing system, and to give him a direct role in selecting district superintendents.