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On Education: Fired for Disagreeing, Ex-Panelist Fears the Mayor Is Discouraging Advice He Needs to Hear

March 24, 2004 | by MICHAEL WINERIP | New York Times

AT a July 2002 news conference, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg introduced his appointees to the city's first Panel for Educational Policy as "seven distinguished New Yorkers." Reporters noted that these were just the sort of accomplished individuals you'd find at a dinner party at the mayor's Upper East Side town house.

This was certainly true of Susana Torruella Leval, a retired director of El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, married to a federal appeals court judge, Pierre N. Leval. Ms. Leval was a member of Gov. George E. Pataki's State Council on the Arts and was a lifelong Democrat who voted enthusiastically for the Republican mayor, served on his transition team and supported the changes giving the mayor control of the schools.

She was invited to City Hall that July 18, had a brief meeting with the mayor that was mostly niceties, she says, and at the end of the chat agreed to accept the unpaid panel post. "This is a mayor with an intelligence that is so refreshing," she says. "No one could be blasé when a man like this asks you to serve. You feel awed and honored."

What happened next is a pretty good metaphor for life on the education panel, as well as the mayor's idea of how you communicate with your supporters. Within minutes after saying yes, Ms. Leval was hurried into the news conference introducing the new panel. "I had no idea they'd announce it so fast," she says. "Ninety reporters in the room - I felt like a deer in the headlights." Only then, she says, did she learn what Mr. Bloomberg meant when he said that panel members serve at the mayor's pleasure.

"I do not expect to see their names - ever - in the press on the record or off the record," the mayor said. "That's exactly what's wrong with the current system."

Ms. Leval says this caught her off guard ("I thought, 'Geeps, this is not nice.' ") but standing in the TV lights' glare, she decided to go along. "One of the negative things about the Board of Education under the old system was the tremendous amount of public infighting," she says. "So for a year and a half we were a completely invisible panel. Nobody talked to the press."

In the last week, the invisible panel has become what may be America's most visible education panel. When the mayor couldn't get Ms. Leval and two other members to agree with his proposal on mandatory retention, he fired them, had three new members appointed and rammed his policy home - in one workday.

Now, once again enjoying her free-speech rights, Ms. Leval says she still admires the mayor and the chancellor, Joel I. Klein; still believes they are "brilliant" men who care about making the schools better; and still believes in mayoral control of the schools.

But she also believes they are squandering an unprecedented opportunity because they are moving too fast and failing to work with the people they need to execute their policies - teachers, principals, their own regional managers and parents. "If the culture that's receiving all this change so fast can't absorb it, I don't see how it can be implemented," says Ms. Leval.

She believes that both the mayor, as a businessman, and the chancellor, as a longtime prosecutor, are good at giving orders but bad at accepting constructive criticism. "Every month we'd be presented a major new policy - bilingual ed, special ed, regional reorganization, standardized curriculum, the new capital plan, No Child Left Behind transfers, social promotion," she says. "They'd give us these brief PowerPoint presentations. We needed time to understand the issues."

Often panel members learned of a new policy they were expected to vote for via mayoral press release. "It was humiliating," she says. "We heard about the new standardized curriculum in a Jan. 21, 2003, release. We had to vote Feb. 10. These are complex issues."

After complaining to the chancellor, the panel received more detailed briefings, but she says, the pace was still dizzying. "I've saved a big fat file full of e-mail protests from panelists about the same thing - we need more time to learn."

"On April 3, 2003, we got a press release about reforming special ed," says Ms. Leval. "April 8, we got a memo with some specifics. April 14 we approved it. That's a huge issue - 11 days. When I look back, I'm embarrassed."

AH, special education. Last month I wrote two columns on the chancellor's special education reorganization - quoting teachers, principals, regional officials and parents - saying they had never seen the system in such disarray. When I sought comment from the city's top special education official, Linda Wernikoff, she denied this, insisting she had heard no complaints from her regional managers, "and I meet with them regularly." Last week, the new deputy chancellor, Carmen Fariña, sent a memo to regional managers, citing these very problems and the need "to be doing a far better job."

Was Ms. Wernikoff misleading me? Or was she speaking the truth - that her subordinates were not telling her about the problems they were so willing to tell a reporter?

Ms. Leval, booted for disagreeing with the mayor once in 18 months, fears the latter: that this administration has created an atmosphere where subordinates are not willing to speak truth to those in power. "This is a managerial culture not comfortable with true listening," she says.

She learned of the mayor's mandatory retention policy when everyone else did - from his Jan. 8 State of the City Address. She says that as an arts person, she had no firm opinion, and spent two months "reading like a maniac on the issue," deciding in the end that his plan relied too much on a standardized test and needed a more flexible appeals process. As the voted neared, she spoke to the mayor. "I told him with one more month I think we could come up with an acceptable compromise. He said, 'No, no, no, it has to be voted on now.' "

Robert Lawson, a city spokesman, said the mayor appreciated Ms. Leval's service. "Just because there are differences of opinion, that does not mean that a variety of voices have not been heard and input taken into account or even used to shape policy,'' he said.

Ms. Leval does not see enough of it.

"Do they listen?" she says. "Anyone can listen. To me you have to listen with an ear that's open."

Red Alert!
Let's Opt Out of the April 2014 NYS Tests

Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

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We also have a magazine explaining Common Core, High Stakes Testing, and InBloom to parents. Varios artículos de esta revista fueron traducidos a Español.

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