Of A Failing School System
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Online published reports have School
Chancellor Harold Levy applying for the position of president of Cornell
University, his alma mater. The Citibank Exec. who tackled the New York
City School system has discovered that the public sector may be more
difficult than the private one. Unable to win the support of Mayor Mike
Bloomberg, Levy apparently finds the Halls of Ivy a lot more attractive
than the down and dirty 110 Livingston Street B of E headquarters which
has gotten the best of many before him.
We applaud his efforts and courage and
believe, like several before him, he tackled a no-win job with a unique
and creative approach. Although his departure is yet to be announced, we
salute him and wish him well.
Potential school system savior after
savior seem to come and go — many of whom, like Levy, have been men of
quality and character — and yet the schools continue to fail the kids.
We know not if giving the control to the
Mayor would improve the system, however, we are certain that the present
system has failed.
It is time for a change.
We recall when we first starting writing
this column of commentary after a long hiatus. In December of 1999, we
broke the news that Levy’s predecessor, then Chancellor Rudy Crew,
would be leaving the job.
Our comments on the school system back
then were right on target. Sadly, it is about to claim Harold Levy as its
On December 23, 1999, we wrote of Rudy
I think he’s done a reasonably good
job. That’s about the best just about anyone could do.
Now, I hear that as you read this, the
game will be over. Rudy Crew is on the way out. He and the Board of Ed.
didn’t have a meeting of the minds. His performance was okay. He
wasn’t thrilled; they weren’t thrilled. He didn’t go hat in hand
asking for a new contract. They didn’t beg. He was a big baby, our
sources tell us. However, the root of the problem is that the school
system is just no damn good. And Rudy Crew can’t fix it. No one can.
The school system is beyond repair and
there is no way to bring it up to acceptable standards. The reasons are
many. . .too many to go into here and now. But the situation has been
disastrous since McGeorge Bundy and the Ford Foundation first came up with
the idea of decentralization in the ‘60s.
No, it’s not their fault either.
Social conditions, poverty, poor contract negotiations, a fiscal crisis, a
litigious society and lots more have brought a system that was struggling
in the ‘60s to beyond repair in the ‘90s. Sadly, we have to see the
same failing structure taken into the new millennium.
No criticism of Crew, Giuliani or Terri
Thomson, the Queens school board member — she’s wonderful — is
intended or deserved. They all have done admirably under the
circumstances. As a matter of fact, I believe they all know it is time to
throw the system out. They just can’t figure out how to do it.
EDUCATION FLASHBACK: I remember pretty clearly, an afternoon in the ‘60s. I was a student
and at the home of my Uncle Murray Bergtraum.
Uncle Murray was the first Queens member
of the new decentralized Board of Education. He was its second president.
Murray was bright and concerned. He was knowledgeable and experienced in
public education. Murray belonged on the Board. He cared and was talented.
Well, he walked into his house, sat down
in the dining room and started to talk to me. We occasionally shared
thoughts. He did more of the talking; I listened.
I don’t recall the exact words, but
the sentiment has remained with me for more than three decades. Murray
shook his head and sadly said: “It’s no use. There is no solution.
They should burn down 110 Livingston St. (Board of Education headquarters)
and start over.”
Some 30 years later, the mayor has
suggested that the Board be blown up.
Let’s stop kidding ourselves. We all
know, our school system is failing.
Anyone have a match?
Gennaro: A New Environment
Jim Gennaro and I lunched at the office
earlier this month. There was no particular agenda. I guess Jim wanted to
renew our friendship after a brief argument concerning our coverage during
I didn’t take notes since much of what
Jim said was during an informal, off-the-record chat. However, some clear
impressions came through.
Like many of his new colleagues, Jim is
hard working and driven. After a full day at his City Hall office, he
returns to his Union Turnpike store front office to deal with the concerns
of his eastern Queens community. Jim’s biggest gripe about the job he
battled so hard for and won is that he doesn’t have enough time with his
wife and seven-year-old daughter.
He complains about the stress caused by
not having yet filled all his staff positions. This self-described
perfectionist readily accepts responsibility for setting staff standards
Unlike many of his colleagues who first
connected with the Council as a result of civic activism, Jim discovered
it because he’s a policy wonk (I love using that word). This former
environmental policy analyst for the Council seems more at home talking
environment or in academia than he does in the backroom of the political
club. He seems to struggle to try to control an occasional explosive
reaction in order to build alliances and relationships. Clearly he prefers
the role of a legislator to that of a hand shaker.
Although at first he claimed to have not
talked politics since his election, he quickly recanted and recognized
that he is likely one of the few new Councilmembers who may have a tough
time winning reelection next year.
No, it has nothing to do with his
performance or the fact that Jim was not the Democratic organization’s
candidate. On the contrary, he is doing his job well and quickly
befriended and was befriended by Tom Manton and Company. He is president
of the powerful Saul Weprin Democratic Club — the only Dem club to be
called home by three elected officials: Jim, Councilman David Weprin and
Assemblyman Mark Weprin.
Jim’s reelection problems stem from
the ethnic or rather religious make-up of his district. This predominantly
Jewish District with the largest block of Orthodox Jewish voters in
Queens, presents a potential hurdle to a non-Jewish candidate. Jim’s
victory last year was only possible because there were two Jewish
candidates in the race. Certainly, he can be expected to run stronger next
year as an accomplished incumbent who has worked hard, but the math of the
Primary voters is still troubling. He has reached out effectively to the
Jewish community, joining the Council’s Jewish caucus and welcoming
Orthodox community activists into his “kitchen cabinet.” He is well on
his way to solidifying himself as the champion of all the people of his
Jim is still adjusting — making the
transition from intellectual to indispensable. He is working hard, he is
committed, he’s here for the long run.
Longtime District Leader, former
Councilman and forever political poobah of the J.F.K. Democratic Club,
Morty Povman is one unhappy camper.
Povman, who challenged Tom Manton for
the top Dem slot in the County a decade and a half ago, has been a loyal
member of the County leader’s team since then. Povman, a super
successful negligence attorney who was term-limited after a three decade
stay in the Council, has the wherewithal to maintain his independence. And
it sounds like that’s just what he’s starting to do.
Last year, his longtime aide Jeff
Gottlieb – in exchange for a promise of futures – withdrew from the
Council race in favor of County’s choice Barry Grodenchik. Well, those
futures never came to Gottlieb while Grodenchik is being given a second
run at public office, and so we’ve witnessed posturing that Gottlieb
would take on longtime Assemblywoman Nettie Mayersong. We’ve been
suggesting that race would never materialize since Mayersonn could only be
beaten by an electric blender and Gottlieb knows it. We believe it was
part of Povman’s message to County: “take care of my club.” Morty
apparently wanted something for Gottlieb and a judgeship for another club
It wasn’t about to happen.
So the longtime District Leader has, at
least for the moment, broken with the organization. Gottlieb has just
about gotten out of the race with Mayersong — we believe he will. Povman
is endorsing Julia Harrison over incumbent and County candidate Toby
Stavisky. Look for other opportunities for Morty to flex his muscle until
he is reeled in by a Democratic organization that has learned how to get
along and allow others to live.
Manton’s mantra has been “peace”
and we’d expect Manton and Co. to work through this one. Povman is
posturing, but he’s always been a County man at heart.
A Family Game
Mayor Mike Bloomberg met recently with
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe in the main lobby
of Grand Central Station to deliver the City’s bid to host the 2004
Democratic National Convention utilizing Madison Square Garden as the main
“We are proud to extend the invitation
to the Democratic National Committee to host the Democratic National
Convention in our great city, and hope that they will accept and make a
dramatic statement of America’s resolve in the face of the Sept. 11
attacks,” said Mayor Mike.
The Mayor announced the Host Committee
co-chaired by Jonathan M. Tisch, chairman and CEO of Loews, and former
Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, who was chair of the Host Committee
for the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City.
I remember taking my son Lee – then 14
– to that ’92 convention to see the new Democratic star Bill Clinton
and our Queens boy Mario Cuomo. I remember when we returned home, Lee
wanted to call my father in Florida. My dad, like I, was a political
junkie and he was raised by a mother who was active in New York Democratic
politics in the early 1900s.
Lee excitedly shouted into the phone,
“Grandpa, I just came from the Democratic convention and heard Bill
Clinton get nominated for president.”
My father responded to Lee by explaining
that when he was 18 his mother took him to a Democratic Presidential
Convention in New York and he too experienced the exhilaration of the
Lee, being his father’s son, did not
miss a beat and asked, “And Grandpa, who did you see nominated... John
Dad was speechless.
And I got a story out of it.
Just one of the family memories that
reinforces that politics is a family game of fun.
Try playing sometime.
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@queenspress.com