08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Darkness at Noon: Meet the New NYC Board of Education

It was an incredibly depressing event - the total Mayoral takeover of our schools, despite the legal sunset of Mayoral control.

The New York State Senate, locked in a leadership battle, had refused to act before midnight June 30 -- bringing back into law the previous school governance system, involving an independent Board of Education, with five appointees representing the five borough presidents, and two mayoral appointees

The emergency meeting of the new Board of Education on July 1 lasted less than ten minutes. The Borough Presidents sat on one side watching, as Chancellor Klein and the city Department of Education counsel Michael Best sat on a couch on the other side. A large contingent of police were present to make sure that there would be no disturbances of the proceedings.

The new board members included Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, appointed by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, in one of the most astonishing turn of events; Dr. Delores Fernandez, appointed by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.; Carlo Scissura, the chief of staff of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; Jimmy Yan, the counsel to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Deputy Borough President Ed Burke, appointed by Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro; and the two mayoral appointees: First Deputy Mayor Patti Harris and Deputy Mayor for Operations Ed Skyler.

The new appointees thus include not one but three deputy mayors, directly beholden to Mayor Bloomberg, of course, and other political staff. None of them, except the Bronx appointee, Dr. Fernandez, have any educational expertise. According to the Queens Courier, Helen Marshall said "Walcott, a Queens native, was a perfect choice for her....Under this new leadership, it might be temporary, but it's darn sure going to be good....."
The board voted first to elect Walcott as its new President. Several times Board members inveighed that how they were trying to prevent chaos and confusion in the system, and Walcott even claimed that parents had called the DOE worried about the start of summer school. If there was any confusion, of course, it was because of frequent scare tactics from the Mayor himself, who predicted disaster at every turn in order to achieve his absolute will. As the Daily News reported, summer school started without a hitch yesterday, of course; and there was absolutely no reason to imagine otherwise.

Most shocking to many of those watching was the way in which in a resolution introduced by Carlos Scissura, the new Brooklyn representative, the new board voted not only to re-appoint Klein in perpetuity, (unless they held a new vote to remove him) , but also to sign away all their decision-making and oversight authority to him. They even gave the Chancellor the unlimited authority to unilaterally approve contracts of any amount, including no-bid contracts, with no oversight or no approval process required.

The resolution was not only contrary to the previous practice and regulations of the Board, in which the members were obligated to approve all no-bid contracts and contracts over $100,000, but also the provisions of every current governance bill in the Senate, one of which they also approved a resolution to urge the Senate to adopt. So much for consistency!

Worst of all, this abdication of their responsibilities flies in the face of the numerous recent audits and reports, including those from the State Comptroller and City Comptroller, revealing billions of dollars wasted by DOE because of the abuse of the contracting process. That the borough presidents would give a green light for these practices to continue unabated is especially troubling now, at a time of economic hardship and hundreds of millions of dollars cut from our schools and classrooms.

This action would be considered a dereliction of fiduciary duties if it occurred in the case of any other governmental agency, especially one so prone to abuse. Yet somehow this lack of accountability is okay when it comes to our children's education, because Michael Bloomberg is in absolute charge - and must remain so, far into the future.

Other troubling issues from today's meeting include:

- There was only about an hour public notice before the meeting was called to order.
- No agenda was provided in advance.
- Three deputy mayors were appointed to the board, including Walcott by the Queens Borough President, making the concept of any independence on the part of the absurd. All other members except the Bronx member were staffers from Borough President ffices.
- The continuation of the Chancellor's contract with the Mayor dated Nov. 2002 was approved- with no end date, and without specifying what the terms of that contract might be.
- The Board refused to allow any public comment before or after the proceedings, unprecedented in previous Board of Education meetings, in my experience and that of others who were present.
- The Board voted to adjourn until Sept. 10, 2009 - more than sixty days in the future.

A very bleak sign of things to come, and yet another manifestation of Mayor Bloomberg's unaccountable use of raw, political power and subjugation of the Borough Presidents - who essentially gave into his autocratic will with alacrity and even enthusiasm - all except the new Bronx Borough President.

When one unnamed Borough appointee was asked by a reporter after the meeting why he voted to let the chancellor have complete approval power over contracts, he told the reporter to refer this question to the Mayor's office. When the reporter pointed out that he was a borough appointee, not a Mayoral appointee, he said, "Well, no comment then."

There seems to be no shame or embarrassment about their collective refusal to acknowledge the need for any independent vetting of spending and policy decisions, and to insulate our children, our schools, and the taxpayers from destructive and wasteful policies.

As I said to the Wall Street Journal, "I don't know if they have the right to sign away...their fiduciary duties," said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group that is critical of mayoral control.

The only bright spot was that I managed to place copies of our new book -- NYC Schools under Bloomberg and Klein: What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know -- on the table in front of every Board member's seat, and they all carried away their copies upon leaving the room except for one.

Probably they thought it had been produced by DOE's massive PR department - but perhaps they'll take a look and learn something by mistake about the lousy policies and results of this administration and feel bad about the irresponsible votes they took today.

The ten minute session, reminiscent of a perfunctory government meeting after a coup, was so awful that it actually made one nostalgic for the days of the Panel for Educational Policy , when at least Manhattan appointee Patrick Sullivan (who was removed by the BP Stringer before the start of the meeting) was there to speak up for parents and the truth, and some minimal public comment was allowed at the end of the session.

All in all, this was a day that will live in infamy of NYC history. The mayor was right about one thing when he predicted what could occur if the Legislature refused to pass legislation ensuring continued Mayoral control -- we did return to the days of the Soviet Union.