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Bloomberg Wins on School Tests After Firing Foes
March 16, 2004 | By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN | New York Times
The city's Panel for Educational Policy yesterday approved Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan to impose strict promotion requirements for third graders, but only after the mayor and the Staten Island borough president fired and replaced three members just before the vote.
Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced the changes to the panel, the successor to the Board of Education, at the start of a meeting last night at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan. But word of the dismissals had already spread, and he had to struggle to be heard over the jeers of a seething crowd.
With three new members in place, the panel voted 8 to 5 to approve the mayor's policy. One of the mayor's appointees cast his yes vote by videoconference from Tokyo.
"This is what mayoral control is all about," Mr. Bloomberg said last night. "In the olden days, we had a board that was answerable to nobody. And the Legislature said it was just not working, and they gave the mayor control. Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in."
For Mr. Bloomberg, who prides himself on delegating authority, it was an extraordinary display of unvarnished mayoral power, and by far the most muscular use of his control over the city school system, the nation's largest. But while he could claim victory last night, the wider implications were impossible to predict, both for future education policy and his own political fortunes.
Under the state law that gave Mr. Bloomberg control of the schools in 2002, the mayor appoints 8 of the 13 panel members. The five borough presidents each name one member. They can be removed at any time by the official who appointed them.
Mr. Bloomberg said he had amended his policy based on comments from panel members, but would not tolerate them voting against him.
Although Mr. Klein said they had resigned, the three panel members said in interviews that they had been tersely dismissed and had intended to vote against the mayor's plan.
The panel had been viewed as little more than a rubber stamp of the mayor's policies. But his plan to hold back students based on standardized test scores met stiff opposition, and seemed headed for defeat.
Under the plan, students who score in Level 1, the lowest of four rankings, on next month's citywide English and math tests, will be forced to repeat third grade unless they score at Level 2 after summer school or their teachers successfully file an appeal on their behalf.
City officials have estimated that the new policy could force as many as 15,000 of the current 74,000 third graders, or about one in five children, to repeat the grade - four times as many as have been left back in recent years based on teacher and principal discretion.
Mr. Bloomberg announced the plan, intended to end the practice called "social promotion," as a centerpiece of his State of the City speech in January. "This year, for third graders, we're putting an end to the discredited practice of social promotion," the mayor declared. "We're not just saying it this time. This time, we're going to do it."
A rejection of the mayor's plan would have been a devastating blow, especially after a week of embarrassing episodes stemming from the hiring of Deputy Chancellor Diana Lam's husband without the proper conflict-of-interest clearance and a subsequent cover-up effort.
But the mayor's brash decision to remove panel members and stack the vote in his favor angered parents, elected officials and union leaders.
As Mr. Klein introduced the new panel members, the audience mocked him, chanting: "This is social promotion. This is social promotion."
Robin Brown, president of United Parents Associations, a citywide coalition of PTA's, said she was outraged. "I am disgusted," she said. " Politics first. Children last. It's just a clear indication of how bad this policy is when you'll do anything to get the vote. Corruption. Nepotism at its worst. This is one of the reasons we never supported mayoral control."
Randi Weingarten, the teachers' union president, said that the mayor's actions should prompt the Legislature to rethink the school governance law. "It calls out for changes in the state law, because this is an abuse of process," she said. "To be able to do what is similar to the Watergate Saturday night massacre on a Monday night, it does call for changes to the state law."
Predictably, the dismissals prompted an immediate drawing of swords by Mr. Bloomberg's political opponents, including Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and a likely mayoral challenger, who attended the meeting last night.
"I have always believed that we should have independence in a board that discusses issues of this magnitude," Mr. Ferrer said.
Several panel members opposed to the mayor's policy said they were most concerned about its reliance on a single test score to force automatic retention of third graders. In many cases, the citywide reading and math tests given in April are the first major standardized exams that these children take.
Critics, supported by a wide body of national research, say that large-scale retention programs are expensive and in many cases ineffective. They also say that the policies most heavily affect black and Hispanic children, who often lag behind their white and Asian counterparts in academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.
Both mayoral appointees removed are of Hispanic origin: Susana Torruella Leval, director emeritus of El Museo del Barrio; and Ramona Hernandez, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York. The removed Staten Island representative was Joan McKeever-Thomas, a parent.
In their place, Mr. Bloomberg appointed Tino Hernandez, the chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, and Alan D. Aviles, the general counsel of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. The Staten Island borough president, James P. Molinaro, named Joan Correale, who owns a bridal accessories business, as his new representative.
Dr. Hernandez said that she had planned to vote against the mayor's plan because she objected to the use of the test scores to force retention. But she said she received a hand-delivered letter yesterday afternoon informing her that she was terminated immediately.
"I have not presented a resignation," she said. "I have the letter in my bag." She said that she had still not absorbed the developments. "I am in shock," she said. "They tell you these kinds of things happen in the Dominican Republic."
The dismissals and last night's vote capped four frenzied days in which city education officials scrambled to win support for the plan by revising crucial details, particularly related to the appeals process. Even yesterday, just hours before the vote, Education Department officials were still tinkering with the wording of the resolution.
Officials also made arrangements for one of the mayor's appointees, David C. Chang, the president of Polytechnic University, to vote by videoconference from Japan, where he is traveling on business.
But late yesterday officials concluded that even with Mr. Chang's participation, Mr. Bloomberg's plan was very likely headed for defeat, one administration official said.
The Manhattan, Bronx and Queens representatives had all said they planned to vote against the mayor. One mayoral appointee who had raised serious doubts about the plan was Augusta Souza Kappner, the president of Bank Street College of Education, one of the nation's premier graduate schools for teaching and the most prominent professional educator on the panel.
And over the weekend, the chancellor effectively rejected a compromise proposal put forward by the Brooklyn representative, Martine G. Guerrier, making her support unlikely.
Dr. Kappner was the only mayoral appointee to vote against the plan last night. A motion by Natalie Gomez-Velez, the Bronx representative, to set aside the motion, was voted down last night. Also rejected was a motion by Ms. Guerrier to amend the plan to delay its being put fully into place.
Ms. McKeever-Thomas said she had hoped the panel would put off voting on the proposal for a month, given all the recent changes made by the chancellor's office. "I was going to vote no," Ms. McKeever-Thomas said yesterday. "I was going to ask to table it for a month."
But then she got a voice mail from Mr. Molinaro, the borough president, telling her that she was fired.
As Mr. Klein entered the auditorium last night, his top aide, Matthew Onek, rushed to remove some of the name-plates of the ousted panel members. The new Staten Island representative scrawled her name on a folded piece of looseleaf paper that quickly fell out of sight.
Mr. Klein opened the meeting by announcing the changes. "There are three panelists who today have resigned," he began. But the chancellor was cut off by Councilwoman Margarita López, who shouted loudly from the audience: "They have not resigned. They have been removed."
Later, when Mr. Klein sought to move to a vote, by closing the public comments portion of the meeting, he was shouted down again. "We want democracy, not this hypocrisy," the audience yelled. Mr. Klein allowed the public comments to proceed.
The abruptness of the changes was obvious at every turn. As Mr. Hernandez, one of the new mayoral appointees, arrived, he was stopped by Elisa Mandell, the chancellor's liaison to the panel, who has been working with the panel members on the retention policy for months. Ms. Mandell introduced herself to him for the first time.
Ms. Gomez-Velez, the Bronx representative on the panel, was near tears as she reacted to the day's events. "I'm very upset," she said. "This is not something that we should be teaching our kids about democracy." Of her dismissed colleagues, she said, "All of them had the best interests of children at heart."
|produced by Naava Katz Design|