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New York Officials Decry Firings Before Vote

Mayor Bloomberg removed school panel members before they could reject testing plan.

March 21, 2004|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg summarily fired two members of a public school governance panel he had appointed -- and made substitutions just before a crucial vote last week -- critics charged the billionaire businessman acted like an autocratic corporate chief executive.

City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., a potential rival in the 2005 mayoral election, likened the last minute tactic to an episode of "The Sopranos."

Clearly, there was shock when the dismissals were announced at a meeting in which the Panel on Educational Policy voted to end social promotion, a policy that has allowed pupils with poor academic skills to move upward in the nation's largest public school system.

The central issue was the mayor's plan to base advancement from the third to the fourth grade on a single English and math test, scheduled to be given next month. Critics say that multiple factors should be considered and that leaving back students increases the possibility they will eventually drop out of school.

Chants of "See you in court," rang out in the basement auditorium of the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan after panel members voted 8 to 5 in favor of the mayor's plan. At the last minute, Bloomberg persuaded the borough president of Staten Island to fire his own representative, who planned to side with the opposition.

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, called Bloomberg's tactics a "bloodbath."

The firestorm hasn't cooled.

"I think there is a very big difference between city politics and boardroom politics," said Jill Chaifetz, executive director of Advocates for Children, a non-profit group aimed at increasing educational services.

Democratic Assemblyman Steven Sanders, chairman of the State Assembly's education committee said: "It almost reminded me of the Saturday night massacre of the Nixon administration when he simply fired the attorney general. It had that same kind of unseemly feel to it."

Sanders said when the legislature gave Bloomberg 8 out of 13 votes on the panel that has veto power over policy and the awarding of large contracts, "no one thought the way the mayor would handle these appointees was to say you are on the board merely to represent my views."

"I was the author of the governance law," he said. "That was really a gross distortion of what we expected this panel on educational policy to be."

The mayor's supporters said he acted appropriately.

"Absolutely," said former Mayor Edward I. Koch. "The mayor did something that no other mayor before him was able to do. That was to abolish the Board of Education and make the Education Department like any other agency of city government where you can hire and fire commissioners."

Koch said Bloomberg's representatives on the panel serve at the will of the mayor.

"He can replace them any time without cause," Koch said. "This is exactly what I would have done."

Bloomberg, who has made improving education the central theme of his administration, offered no apologies.

"It's not autocratic. I think you probably haven't had a chance to read the law," he lectured a reporter at a news conference in Harlem the day after the vote. "The law that the legislature passed gave the mayor control.... This is something the governor signed."

"They said to the mayor: 'Fix the school system.' You are responsible and you have the authority, and that's exactly what we are trying to do."

Bloomberg said he tried to convince the two panel members he fired, Ramona Hernandez and Susana Leval, director emeritus of El Museo del Barrio, "this was the best of the possible solutions to giving our children a better education."

He also said he "reminded them that they are there to offer advice and to represent the mayor."

In an interview, Hernandez, director of the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York, said Bloomberg phoned her on the afternoon of March 12, two days before the vote.

"We talked for a few minutes," she said. "He was trying to convince me, going over his rationale about the soundness of the policy and how crucial it was for the transformation of the schools."

Hernandez said she told the mayor that academic research just did not support the testing policy he wanted to implement.

"He said, 'Ramona, we need to be doing this' ... it was very friendly. He is a very charming guy."

Hernandez said Bloomberg ended the conversation by saying they would talk again on Monday, and she never suspected her post was in jeopardy.

She said Monday afternoon, just hours before the vote in the evening, one of the mayor's deputies phoned. When she repeated she could not support Bloomberg's position, he asked for her resignation.

"I am inundated by sadness over what happened," Hernandez said.

Critics, including Weingarten, the head of the teachers union, have called upon the legislature to weaken the mayor's control over the school system.

But the prospects for that are not strong.

"You have a governor who frankly concurs with what the mayor did," said Sanders. "I think the governor feels a chief executive should be the sole arbiter of all educational decisions, and I think it is unlikely we will see any significant changes."

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