Mayors Seek to Improve Schools in Other Cities

Published June 1, 1999

Spurred largely by Mayor Richard M. Daley’s apparent success in improving the Chicago public schools, mayors in several other cities seem eager to be given authority to take control of failing schools in their own urban areas. At the same time, a parallel movement by other mayors seeks to bring reform to city schools by encouraging the election of reform-oriented school board candidates, and by promoting the delegation of authority for schools to the lowest possible level–to parents–through school choice.

Seeking a CEO in Detroit

Although he did not actively seek control of the public schools in his city, Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer was handed that responsibility on March 26 when Michigan Governor John Engler signed a bill that stripped authority over schools in Detroit from the eleven-member elected school board. Archer lost no time in appointing current General Superintendent Eddie Green as acting Chief Executive Officer of the district. The mayor also appointed six respected business and civic leaders to the reform board, with Engler appointing a seventh member.

But the new board has had little success in finding a permanent CEO, something they expected to accomplish within 30 days of taking office. In addition, the initial positive response to the new appointees has been marred by some unfortunate public relations snafus.

When hecklers disrupted the board’s first public meeting before a crowd of 1,000, Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix ordered them removed by the police. The board then further embarrassed itself by scheduling two weekend meetings without providing adequate notice to the press and the public.

Green will continue as acting CEO until a permanent one is appointed. Once that occurs, the board’s role will become largely one of oversight: the bill Engler signed gives the CEO authority to run the schools, sign contracts, and implement major reforms without step-by-step approval from the board. (See “Detroit Takeover Gives CEO Extraordinary Powers,” School Reform News, May 1999.)

Pataki: Mayors should run New York schools

Under legislation proposed by New York Governor George E. Pataki, responsibility for running the public schools in New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Yonkers–the five largest school systems in the state–would be taken away from independent boards and placed in the hands of the mayors in those cities. The targeted school systems educate 42 percent of the state’s public school children.

According to New York Times reporter Clifford J. Levy, Pataki believes schools would improve if they were made to answer to prominent public officials rather than to appointed or elected boards. The mayors of all five cities agree and provide bipartisan support for the governor’s proposal. Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, mayor of New York City, is promoting a similar proposal in the state legislature; the mayors of Buffalo and Rochester, both Democrats, also have asked for more authority over their schools.

Pataki’s bill faces long odds in the State Assembly, where the Democrat majority already is opposed to Giuliani’s takeover proposal.

L.A. mayor gets new school board

Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan is a man who puts his money where his mouth is. During the April elections, he spearheaded a $2 million campaign to elect four reform candidates to the city’s seven-member school board. Three of Riordan’s favored candidates won, and the fourth forced a two-term incumbent into a runoff election, set for June 8. In declaring victory, Riordan said the new board would usher in a “revolution” for the city’s 700,000-student public school system. He had promised a shakeup during his re-election campaign in 1997.

“Our education system is bankrupt,” Riordan declared before April’s school board election, urging Angelenos to cast their votes for change. “The public education system is a disgrace. It is failing our children every day,” he added, noting that poor children in the $6.5 billion system were not learning and not getting the skills they needed to be part of the middle class.

The best way to bring about change, Riordan had argued, was through the school board. Speaking enthusiastically after the election, he said “it’s great to see the voters wake up.”

The mayor doesn’t plan to tell the reformers what to do. Although committed to providing whatever advice and resources the school board needs to get their job done, Riordan told Education Week that the victorious candidates are “independent-minded people.”

New board cleans house in Milwaukee

The newly installed Milwaukee school board wasted no time in taking control and cleaning house after city voters elected a slate of reformers backed by Mayor John Norquist and business leaders. Five teacher union-backed candidates were rejected in the April election.

The new board members chose to be sworn in not at the traditional City Hall location, but at Garden Holmes School, a top-performing school whose success the new board wants to replicate throughout the city. At its first business meeting a few days later, the board acted to push aside the current schools superintendent, Alan Brown, and replace him with “dynamic reformer” Spence Korte.

One of the new board’s key goals is to devolve control to the level of the individual school, something Korte fought for when he was principal of Milwaukee’s Hi-Mount Community School. In Korte, the new board “gets a superintendent who believes with his heart and his head in decentralization,” according to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel editors.

There is nothing more important to the future of Milwaukee than improving public education, wrote Norquist in a letter to school board members after the election. He emphasized three priorities to the new board: safety, school choice, and expansion of after-school and summer programs. While there are many things the board could do on its own–such as ending social promotion, reducing bureaucracy, and setting higher standards–Norquist proposed a joint city-schools effort to make schools safe and rid them of disruptive students.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.