Vol. 13, No. 18 Sept. 21 - Oct. 4, 2000


A Norwood News Special Report

After Year Focused on Riverdale High School, Board Vows Attention for District Overcrowding


In May of 1999, a slate of seven Riverdale candidates was elected to the nine-member Community School Board 10, and from day one worked diligently to fulfill its campaign promise of expanding MS 141 to include a high school. Less than one year later, the board had $30 million and the city's stamp of approval to convert MS 141 to the grade 6-to-12 Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy.

Even though local community schools boards have far fewer powers than before, Board 10, with the strong backing of Riverdale parents and elected officials and its use of the bully pulpit, was able to get the academy approved. The achievement is all the more remarkable considering local school districts have no jurisdiction over high schools, and because only a fraction of the district's 40-plus schools are in Riverdale.

Now, the board pledges to target severe overcrowding and disrepair throughout the district while parents outside of Riverdale hope the Riverdale slate will pursue these priorities in the same aggressive way they pursued the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy.

It is no easy task that lies before the board, which presides over the largest school district, with 40,000 students, in the city. The district, long plagued by overcrowding, has 1,000 more kids than it has room for, and enrollment is expected to rise this year. Many more students are taught in converted libraries and art rooms and in transportable classrooms located in schoolyards throughout the district, while a total of 6,500 students are taught in leased spaces away from school property. Parents and school officials worry the problem will only get worse since there are no new schools for the district included in the current five-year plan that stretches through 2004. Most importantly, the real power lies at the central board of Education, which is responsible for 32 school districts in five boroughs, and ultimately at City Hall where the mayor has the ultimate say over how much the central Board can spend on capital needs.

Success was no accident
School Board 10's success in getting its high school plan adopted last year was no accident. The board president, Oliver Koppell, is a former assemblyman and state attorney general with strong roots in Riverdale and within the Democratic Party establishment there. Koppell and four other board members live in Riverdale, one of the most affluent and politically important communities in the city.

Board member Cordell Schachter pointed to Koppell and other members of the board in explaining its clout. "We have some very articulate, experienced, knowledgeable people," Schachter said. "The presence of Koppell gives us tremendous credibility as a board."

Koppell acknowledged that political power has played an important role in the board's success. "I think it was [due to] the election results combined with the strong community support," he said. "We were elected on a wave of support. Crew and Giuliani responded to this."

That political show of strength succeeded in blunting some of the impact of a new school governance law passed by the state legislature which stripped school boards of much of their powers, including the ability to hire and fire principals and control district budgets. It also significantly weakened the board's ability to hire the superintendent of its choice without the backing of the schools chancellor.

Basically, boards lost their power to make real changes, said Norman Fruchter, director of the New York University Institute for Education and Social Policy. "[The laws] left them with a very ill-defined policy role," he said. "They're mainly an advisory board for the super. They can advise on policy for the district."

In fact, board vice president Dianna Tabacco views the weakness of the board as "the inability to control anything in policy." "If we would like to do something," she said, "we can't if the city doesn't fund us and the state doesn't support us."

Despite these obstacles, in only its first year in office, the board managed to establish the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy and initiate the construction of MS 368, a new school in Kingsbridge that will absorb students who are edged out of MS 141 due to the school's expansion of grades and more restricted zoning.

Mobilization for Riverdale Academy
Plans began brewing to create the Riverdale Academy well before the Riverdale slate took office, when the idea was proposed in the Riverdale Review, a local newspaper which featured free full-page ads and a series of articles and editorials championing the restructuring of MS 141 to become a high-standard, community middle school and high for Riverdale residents not happy with their other local choices, such as John F. Kennedy High School.

Supporters signed petitions, attended school board meetings and lobbied for the support of local politicians, despite protests from many parents that rezoning MS 141 would exclude minorities. The construction of MS 368 was also strongly protested because of allegations that the site is contaminated with lead. Success drew near when Riverdale residents turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote the Riverdale slate into office, carried by the popularity of candidate Koppell and the prospect of a community high school.

Despite objections from board members Myrna Calderon and Charles Williams, the board's minority faction, proposals for the Riverdale Academy and MS 368 were voted on and approved by the board within weeks. Resolutions followed to approve the siting of MS 368 and to establish zones for both schools.

The board then got approval from District 10 Superintendent Irma Zardoya, the central Board of Education, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Chancellor Rudolph Crew. The Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy opened its doors this month.

But the board's mission to establish the Riverdale Academy and the accompanying MS 368 ultimately consumed most of its first year, dominating public meetings and causing resentment among parents who felt their schools' issues were not being addressed.

Parents scarce at meetings
The board's plans faced opposition, particularly among Kingsbridge parents who feared the MS 368 site was unsafe and that their children were now being zoned out of the Riverdale school. Shouting matches regularly erupted as Williams and Calderon denounced the Riverdale school plan as racist and exclusionary and alleged the site for MS 368 was unsafe.

Long-winded arguments about the issue stretched board meetings at times to more than four hours, while other pressing issues were ignored. "The school board meetings have gone away from issues that concern children," complained PS 37 and Bronx Dance Academy parent Jane McMillan at a public meeting several months ago. "We are concerned about the schools that did poorly on the reading and math tests. We need to address grades and supplies."

With the exception of a few dedicated participants, many parents, weary of the divisive, marathon sessions opted not to show up anymore. "Parental involvement is near zero," Calderon said. "Parents aren't coming out because their concerns aren't being addressed. It's absolutely noticeable when they make the roll call [of parent association presidents]. We used to have 20 reps at a meeting. Now, the President's Council isn't even showing up."

Bedford Park parent Lois Harr complained the board hasn't been active in finding a home for her child's school, the Jonas Bronck Academy, even though the building's lease expires in 2002. "They took an oath to be the school board of the whole district," she said. "They swore to take care of all kids."

Board members, though, say they have made strides to improve the whole district in their first year in office. Tabacco pointed to the board's success in reinstating the district's science and arts fairs and in mandating a gifted and talented program at every school.

Board sets sights on overcrowding
Over the summer, as the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy saga drew to a close, the focus of the meetings began to shift to overcrowding and repairs. At the board's Aug. 24 public meeting, Koppell announced he sent letters requesting support from politicians and Board of Education officials for its capital projects agenda.

Attached to the letters was a list of 21capital project priorities, compiled by the board, including six new schools, new buildings for four other schools, and major repairs at 11 others. The total cost of these projects was estimated at over $250 million. The board will hold a public hearing to discuss the projects and potential political support on Oct. 12 at PS 246, a Fordham Bedford school that tops the priority list because of its decrepit condition.

School Board 10 has also passed a resolution supporting schools in the Kingsbridge Armory, a huge, empty facility in Fordham Bedford that the mayor proposed to convert to a shopping and recreation center. They also would support alternative plans for two new schools in the area near the armory, rather than in the facility itself.

Same push sought
Parents want to see the push for such initiatives taken to a level comparable to the mobilization that surrounded the Riverdale Academy. "Whatever effort you put into that school, do that for the other schools," Harr told board members at a July meeting. "Let's do that 21 times. All that energy you put into that, turn it to other directions."

McMillan was awestruck that the board could get millions of dollars from the city to support the Riverdale Academy and MS 368. "If they can find that much money to build two schools, why couldn't they find money for other schools?" she asked.

Calderon echoed that sentiment. "I hope this board uses whatever strings they pulled for 141," she said. "We could really use that kind of political will and clout."

Education officials say that the homework assignment the board has assigned itself is a tough one.

Maria Garcia, an aide to Sandra Lerner, the borough's representative on the central board, said it is difficult for boards to influence the city's five-year capital plan. "The role of school boards is to, once money has been identified as given by the city, identify sites and zones for schools," Garcia said.

However, "any kind of lobbying, whether it's speaking out directly or making phone calls, all of these things are effective," Garcia added.

Board members say they are willing and eager to focus on schools like PS 246, but that they need help from parents. "The presence of 141 and 368 going forward is a result of community involvement and community organization," said board member Cordell Schachter. "The board will support other projects, but it needs similar activism. We can't do it alone."

Harr, who is active with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which has 10 grassroots neighborhood associations in the area, responded that there has been plenty of parental action already, referring to a number of rallies, press conferences and meetings sponsored by parents in the Coalition's education committee. "We've had a sustained effort for five years," she said, describing efforts ranging from a parent-led campaign to get the School Construction Authority to complete schools on time and the organization's proposal to transform the Kingsbridge Armory into a educational and community complex. "MS 141 was a flash in the pan of parental involvement."

And, whatever the level of political power a community has, the board is charged with representing the entire district in an equitable manner, Harr said.

"The board is elected to do its job regardless of parental involvement," she added. "They're supposed to do what's good whether 10 people ask for it or 1,000 people ask for it."

Koppell insisted that serious efforts have already been initiated to address the needs of the district's other schools, including next month's hearing. And, at a recent public meeting, Koppell declared, "I'm going to make it a personal priority - and you can hold me to this - to push in a time of plenty, with a budget surplus, for class size reduction."

This year, board members also say they will focus on implementing zoning changes for more equitable space distribution, and to place special education students in schools near their homes. They also want to ensure gifted and talented programs are implemented and try to bring up math and reading scores.

Judging School Boards
How did Community School Board 10 perform its first year in office? Here are four criteria to consider suggested by Norm Fruchter, director of the NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy, when judging a school board's performance. (Evaluations by reporter Hannan Adely follow each item.)

1. How unified are they and how much do they achieve a common purpose? Are they fractious and fighting with each other? "The board should find a way to agree on developing policy," Fruchter noted. "It's whether they're focusing on these things or fighting with each other that's important."

The Riverdale seven stick together like glue, but there are constant arguments with the board's minority faction, consisting of Myrna Calderon and Charles Williams. They fight about everything from lead contamination, to curriculum, to speaking time. Ultimately, though, the Riverdale crew achieves its common purpose, since it holds the majority vote.

2. You ought to be able to know what they're about in terms of policy. There should be a coherent policy mission that you can identify,

Everyone on the board is, naturally, concerned with overall issues of overcrowding and test scores. Aside from this, the Riverdale seven act in unison and their main policy issues are well-known to the district. They're big supporters of community zoned schools and of gifted and talented programs. Williams and Calderon argue that schools with special programs should be open to all students in the district, and believe classes should contain students of varying academic capabilities.

3. An effective board develops policy that deals with all needs in the district, not just with some kids.

The board spent a lot of time planning MS 368 and the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy and dealing with lead scares at PS 37 this year, while many other schools seem to have eluded their radar screen. The board does have two years left in office, though.

4. An effective board supports its superintendent rather that constantly fights with the superintendent.

The board, at one time, considered opening up the superintendent's post to other applicants. They would have done so if it wasn't from protests from parents and an appeal from Roberto Ramirez, the chair of the Bronx Democratic Party. They did, though, cut the length of her renewable contract by a third. To date, there has been no on-stage fighting, and the superintendent has been willing to compromise with the board on most issues.

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