Firing of New York School Chief Points Up High Turnover Rate At Top of US City School Districts


LAST week's dismissal of New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez continues a pattern of revolving doors at the top of urban school systems.

Mr. Fernandez's tumultuous three-year term lasted longer than some might have expected, however. The average tenure of a big-city superintendent (or chancellor, as the position is called in New York) is two years, says Michael Casserly, interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington.

Forty of the 44 big-city school districts in the council have superintendents who have been in office only since 1990, Mr. Casserly says. "And several of those positions are already starting to turn over," he adds.

New York City, whose 970,000 students make it the largest school district in the United States, has had six school chiefs in the past decade. Since Fernandez left Dade County, Fla., for New York three years ago, the Miami-area district has gone through three different superintendents.

"If there's one thing that inner-city children don't have at every level of their lives, it's stability. This is just one more instability in a very important realm," says Jeanne Frankl of the Public Education Association, a private group that monitors New York's public schools.

The high turnover rate of school leaders is a problem with multiple roots, Casserly says. The job involves high demands for results and many urban communities are desperately seeking achievement gains for their students.

Fernandez gained accolades for some of his ideas, such as creating smaller high schools. But he created an uproar over social issues. The chancellor and the Board of Education battled over AIDS education, condom distribution, and a curriculum urging tolerance of homosexuals.

The recent publication of Fernandez's autobiography also fanned the flames of controversy. The book includes frank criticisms of nearly all the people responsible for deciding who should lead the New York school system, including school-board members, Mayor David Dinkins, and Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. Several board members have said the book contributed to their decision not to keep Fernandez in his job.

Others view the book as Fernandez's unofficial resignation. "How much did he really want to stay?" asks Sy Fliegel, a fellow with the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute. "I'll give you a choice: Either he was stupid or he really wanted out because you don't write what he wrote ... and then be shocked to see that people are unhappy."

In an interview with the Monitor several weeks ago, Fernandez said he had not made up his mind about whether to stay on in New York after his contract expires in June. "I have four votes [from the seven-member school board] so I know I can stay," he said.

However, 1 of those 4 votes turned against Fernandez last week. Carol Gresser, a board member from Queens, decided against supporting the chancellor.

For more than a year, Fernandez made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the board under which he served. Like many urban school leaders, he complained that board members were attempting to "micromanage" and interfere with day-to-day operations of the school system.

School boards were once very useful in governing school districts, says Robert Wagner Jr., a former president of the New York Board of Education. "But what happens now," he says, "is that they tend, whether in West Virginia or New York City, to get bogged down in the details and minutiae."

The ouster of Fernandez is renewing calls for restructuring school governance in New York. The Board of Education now has seven members, with two appointed by the mayor and one by each of five borough presidents. Mayor Dinkins and Governor Cuomo support giving the mayor more control of the board, for accountability purposes.

Several months ago, Mr. Wagner formed the Commission on the Reform of Public Education. The group is expected to make recommendations for restructuring the school board in early March.

"We're leaning toward redefining the role of the board so that it is a policy board, as opposed to dealing with everyday management," Wagner says. "Right now, the board does both." The commission will probably propose a majority of mayoral appointees, Wagner says.

Other groups are promoting the dissolution of the central board. "This whole idea of someone managing a million-student system is ludicrous from many positions," Mr. Fliegel says.

Several borough presidents support the idea of having a separate board for each of the five boroughs. "The time has come to break the mold," says Claire Shulman, the borough president in Queens.

If New York retains the chancellor position, it may be difficult to find someone new to fill the job. "If they look to the outside, I think they are going to run into trouble attracting somebody," Casserly says. Other urban districts - such as Chicago and Los Angeles - will be searching for new leaders at the same time. "All three of those cities will be competing against each other," Casserly says.

In addition, many superintendents are in their first years on the job and are "not likely to jump so soon," Casserly says. "Then again," he adds, "anybody who would jump has to pause and look [at] what happened to a very strong leader in New York and think to themselves, `Do I really need this?' "

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