N.Y. Mayor's Grip on Schools

New school chief will face tight budget, feisty mayor

LESS than half the high school students graduate after four years. More than half have reading scores below their grade level. And reported violent crime in the schools is up 28 percent in the first six months of this past school year.

These grim statistics add up to a tough job for the person chosen to run New York City's school system, the nation's largest.

This week, the New York Board of Education is expected to name a new chancellor to run 195 schools with more than 1 million children. Whoever gets the nod inherits a political hot potato.

The outgoing chancellor, Raymond Cortines, was hounded out of office by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) who has maintained that he should have some say over who runs the schools.

The three finalists for the job, Daniel Domenech, a Long Island district administrator; Robert Spillane, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va.; and Leon Goldstein, the president of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, have told the mayor that they want to work with him, not against him.

But the battle over who gets to appoint the education czar is not unique to New York. Washington Mayor Marion Barry (D) is wrangling with the Board of Education over control of that system. There is a bill in the US Senate calling for a "super" board to oversee the D.C. officials.

And educators are not certain that it makes much difference who controls the school system. "If you look at other urban school districts, there is not much difference from system to system that you can lay at the feet of who runs the system - a better predictor of achievement is the poverty rate," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, a Washington coalition of 50 urban school systems.

But he adds that "the system happens to be better off if the mayor and the superintendent cooperate with one another for a single purpose."

In New Jersey, the state has taken over two school systems - Patterson and Jersey City - that were run by the mayors, who sometimes used them for patronage purposes. "You must be wary about seeing mayoral control as the solution," says Frank Smith, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University.

New York's feisty mayor, however, wants to leave his fingerprints on the new chancellor's agenda. Guiliani maintains a priority for the new school super is to understand, "how to take a huge, complicated, and unwieldy bureaucracy and strip it to its essentials."

As part of a city wide belt tightening, the new chancellor must cut $750 million out of his $8 billion budget this fiscal year. "Unless the New York City economy changes, the new chancellor faces a funding emergency," says Norm Fruchter, co-director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University.

AT the same time, the new chancellor needs to find a way to improve security in the schools. Although the mayor points out that violent crime is rising in the school system, Mr. Fruchter says the increase may be the result of an improved reporting system. "I think it is a fairly safe school system, but not safe enough," he says. Giuliani is eager to have security taken over by the New York Police Department.

The mayor also wants to reduce the city spending on special education classes. The city spends $22,000 per pupil on special ed each year compared with $5,000 per student for other classes. "There must be greater balance between spending on special education and mainstream programs," says Giuliani.

Mr. Smith says the expense of special ed can be reduced. "The advocates for special ed have established a very complicated set of hearings and decisions," says Smith. As a result of such administrative procedures, costs are very high.

Last month, the mayor said his model for city education was the parochial school system, arguing that Catholic schools set higher standards, which students work hard to meet, and that the schools have greater autonomy.

But Fruchter says "you really can't compare the two systems" since New York must provide facilities for students with disabilities and city-wide transportation. In addition, the city provides teachers with greater benefits.

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