School Boards Reexamined
By HANNAN ADELY
Community school boards were created by the state legislature in 1969 to give a voice to parents, especially those in minority communities who wanted more participation in the education system. But critics say the boards have failed to draw diverse participation, and instead have been riddled with corruption and personal political agendas.
Now, fueled by the postponement of this May's school board elections, state legislators and educators are reexamining school governance in New York City, including the role of community school boards. "There's a tremendous amount of frustration with the way schools have been run," said Assemblyman Peter Rivera, who sits on the panel of a dozen legislators that is scrutinizing the issue of school governance. (Rivera represents parts of Fordham Bedford and the South Bronx.) "I think when you look at the experience of school boards, for example, there has been a lot of frustration at school boards through the years. Now the question is, 'Have school boards outlived their existence?'"
Many local parents feel school boards have failed their mission. "Theoretically, the concept of the school board should have worked," said Gail Walker, a District 10 parent and education activist. "But for the everyday parent with no connections it doesn't work because politics is intricately woven in the whole process."
Walker said she felt Community School Board 10 was an example of school board failure because its members are almost all from one part of the district. "What is happening here is what is happening in many districts," she said. "They are being controlled by a small select group of individuals ... It is the same complaint everywhere. You hear it in Rockaway, in Throgs Neck, and in Manhattan."
Critics also point out that only about three percent of registered voters vote in school board elections and that parents are scarce at board meetings.
Others say the community school board is worth protecting and improving because it provides a direct vehicle of communication between parents and district officials. "Community school boards are elected to represent the community and bring the eyes and ears of the Board of Education to what's going on," said School Board 10 President Dianna Tabacco. "... If a community board calls a meeting, where we're all saying we need schools, it's a much more meaningful voice."
Robert Press, co-president of the District 10 Presidents Council, a parent group, attributes increased test scores in the district in part to the work of Community School Board 10 in bringing honors programs to local schools.
Rivera said reforming school boards posed a dilemma because some are problematic and others "are great and live up to their potential." But state legislators generally agree that some type of change is needed to put power back in parents' hands.
If school boards were abolished - one option being considered by the legislative panel - school leadership teams might be handed a greater role in parent involvement. Leadership teams, made up of parents and teachers, were created in 1999 to democratize decision-making, and were in part a response to inadequacies of school boards. A parents advisory council could be created from among the leadership teams to deliver concerns to district officials.
For now, current school boards will have an extra year to prove themselves worthy. The state Legislature passed legislation Jan. 28 to postpone the city's community school board elections, which were scheduled for May, for one year. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who co- sponsored the legislation, said the elections would be difficult to run since the New York City Board of Elections was facing budget cutbacks and legislative redistricting.
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