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Tweed Still at It

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We tend to write about what we view as major injustices, which means that minor injustices receive short shrift.

The Department of Education can briefly and appropriately be referred to as Tweed, referencing its abode at 52 Chambers Street, a building whose construction enriched the Democratic county leader at the time to an extent unmatched until the advent of CityTime 140 years later. The schools had been run since 1940 out of 110 Livingston Street, in Brooklyn, an address that in time became a metaphor for waste and bureaucracy. Rejecting figurative suggestions that it be blown up, the city sold the building and it is now a convenient if uninspired condo.

Those educrats not pensioned off reconstituted themselves in Tweed, a 19th century relic at the northern end of City Hall Park. Seized by idealism, the Tweedlings set up a City Hall Academy, a charter school to share their building and remind its occupants who they were supposed to serve. The children shortly afterward disappeared and the Academy was relocated. One doesn't use an executive suite for manufacturing, even in education.

The move to Manhattan does not appear to have drastically affected the thought practices of the Tweedlings, who reorganized the school system several times in a few short years. Their claims of educational achievement were debunked by state officials last July, and the longest-serving chancellor departed in December.

Although this is not a cosmic issue, it deserves more public scrutiny than it has yet received. What the Tweedlings have done this year is to renege on an agreement which allowed school principals to defer a small percentage of the annual appropriation for their school until the next year, to enable them to retain teachers or offer new programs. These are expenditures they would be unable to afford unless they were allowed to keep some unspent funds.

One of the key goals of education reform under mayoral control was to increase the authority of principals, while at the same time holding them responsible for the success or failure of their students. The principal was to be treated as the CEO of a school, not as a bureaucrat at the bottom of the Tweed totem pole.

This year, Tweed has notified the principals that one-half of the money they have saved and set aside will revert to headquarters if the money is not spent this year. The deadline for "use it or lose it" is now March 18.

The arbitrary decision to cut in half the small percentage that the principals can use to alleviate next year's budget shortfall flies in the face of Mayor Bloomberg's sound fiscal management, where he set aside two billion dollars to meet the revenue deficit that was anticipated with the Great Recession. The reason the city has fared so much better than the state government is that while the state legislature continued to spend recklessly as the crisis deepened, the mayor and the city council had foreseen the fiscal disaster and provided for it to the extent that they could.

The decision to renege is attributed to Schools Chancellor Cathie Black, who, according to the Post, "dropped the bombshell in her weekly letter to principals - telling them half the funds they manage to set aside for the next school year will be diverted to the DOE's central coffers."

A timeless fable that casts light upon this dispute, "La cigale et la fourmi" ("The Grasshopper and the Ant") was told by La Fontaine in the 17th century. The parable recounts the story of a grasshopper who spent the warm months singing, while the diligent ant dedicated his time to gathering food. Come winter, the grasshopper finds himself starving and begs the ant for help, but the ant instead admonishes him for his improvidence.

I feel it is appropriate to cite the tale here because we had to memorize it in Mr. Clement's French class at Junior High School 52 in Inwood. Later, I learned the fable was first written by Aesop 2,600 years ago, but since we were taught French and not Greek, we had to read La Fontaine's version.

The predicament of the formic principals was well related by Sharon Otterman in the February 17 New York Times, "Penalty for New York City Principals Who Save."

Her story concluded with this quote: "Ed Tom, principal of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, a small high school, said he faced losing $125,000 from the $250,000 he had planned to save for next year - enough for a year's afterschool program. 'I am in shock,' he said. Speaking of the central offices of the Education Department at Tweed Courthouse, he said. 'This money rightfully belongs to the school community, it doesn't belong at Tweed.'"

The Post's education reporter, Yoav Gonen, wrote for the February 18 paper under this headline: "Frugal Principals Feel Black's 'Pinch'." His lede: "Frugal principals who manage to squirrel away rainy-day school funds to offset pending budget cuts are livid over a Department of Education bid to pinch half their savings." 

Gonen quotes Sean Walsh, principal of IS 291 in Brooklyn. "This is insanity. It's saying whatever you put into this deferred account, you only get 50 percent back - without any rationale as to why and what it would be doing to support the system as a whole."

The Post spoke to other principals, and reported: "Many were outraged about being punished for exhibiting the same sound fiscal management that Mayor Bloomberg has repeatedly touted as the impetus for Black's appointment as chancellor."

City Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley of Queens held a press conference today with several other elected officials at P.S. 128 in Middle Village protesting the Tweed directive. "Taking 50% of our schools' reserves will to do little to close a budget gap but will have a big impact on the programs schools can provide for our students," said the councilmember. "We are telling the Mayor and the DOE to not cut our schools reserves - it's bad education policy, it's bad management policy and it's bad budget policy. The DPPI [Deferred Program Planning Initiative] has allowed our schools to be fiscally responsible and ensures that money meant for our local schools, stays in our local schools. For the DOE to tap into schools' budget funds and blame budget deficits is disingenuous." Four elected officials joined in her statement.

It is hard for us to believe that Cathie Black ordered this policy shift on her own, breaking faith with the principals who are considered the cornerstones on which Mayor Bloomberg's program to reform the schools is built. Across the five boroughs, the total amount saved by the principals was around $80 million. Why should Black impair her own credibility by taking less than $40 million (the 50%) away from the schools to return to headquarters, when the Department's total budget exceeds $20,000,000,000? (That is twenty billion dollars, if there are too many zeroes to count.) Also, the fact that the principals have until March 18 to spend the money means there may not be any financial savings at all, just a lot more school supplies and toilet paper purchased.

The closer one looks at this episode, the odder it appears. One would think that this administration, in particular, would want to encourage initiative by principals through giving them a small percentage of their school budget to save for a rainy year, 2011-12. Why should high officials undermine themselves by tampering with prior promises? What is really the reason for this flip-flop, which has irritated so many people who are devoted to the schools?

There are two theories. Either this policy perturbation originated in City Hall, or it did not. Was Cathie Black being set up to take the fall? Assuming good intentions, and rejecting unproven conspiracy theories, let us believe that the decision was made at Tweed, either by Ms. Black or one of her staff members. If that be the case, the mayor can straighten out the situation in a flash - that is why we have mayoral control of the schools, which we all supported in 2003, and continue to support today because whether or not we have increased literacy, we do have more accountability. The mayor is clearly accountable, as he wanted to be.

If this mess originated with Ms. Black, she should be reminded that this is not the Hearst Corporation, which is a hierarchical corporate structure in which the views of underlings count for naught. There are over a thousand principals here, men and women generally deserving of considerable respect, who do happen to have educational credentials to justify their appointment. Why should these leaders be subjected to what amounts to a purse snatching?

If this scheme came from one of her staff, he or she should receive the same due process the Intifada principal was given, and assigned duties in which misjudgments will not cause public embarrassment and create ill will.

It is an extraordinarily difficult task to teach children, many from deprived backgrounds, to read, write and cipher. A frightening story that appeared today on the Times's website (which presumably will be in tomorrow's paper), "CUNY Adjusts Amid Tide of Remedial Students," by Lisa W. Foderaro, casts light on just how great are the challenges the Department of Education faces, if it is to make its graduates literate.

It is fair to suppose that the best ways to teach may not yet have been discovered. The point of today's article is not to take DOE to task for the performance of its million students; we may not know any better than they do on that subject. What we do know is that it makes sense to keep one's word, and not to take away what has been given, not to alienate the people you rely on to lead, and not to conceal what is being done or who has done it.

If one conducts oneself properly and obeys the rules of civilized behavior, people will be more likely to believe that what one is doing on more important matters is credible and makes sense.

The appropriate words here are those that Mayor Bloomberg for years has addressed to every commissioner just after he has appointed them: "Don't [mess] it up."