Wayne Barrett: The Empty-Suit Board of Ed


The new vocabulary test for Scott Stringer, Helen Marshall, Marty Markowitz and Jim Molinaro, just issued by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, poses a multiple choice question seeking a synonym for the post all of them hold, borough president:

( ) zeroes
( ) “neutered beasts”
( ) stickmen
( ) trifles
( ) blank cartridges
( ) Tom, Dick and Harry
( ) All of the above

Last week these four beeps (that’s what the tabloids used to call borough presidents when, in days of yore, they had the power to at least make a sound loud enough to be heard) made their most significant appointments in years — naming new members to the newly reconstituted Board of Education, which temporarily rules the nation’s largest school system again. Thanks to the stalemate in the state senate, the mayoral control bill expired on June 30, seven years after it was adopted, and the $18.4 billion system reverted to the laws in place before Mike Bloomberg’s prized legislation.

For a second, borough presidents, who controlled five seats on the old and re-invented seven-member board, actually mattered. But the Bronx’s Ruben Diaz Jr. was the only of the five with the guts to say he would actually exercise the independent judgment the charter conveys to every elected public official, and appoint someone who would not just do Imperial Mike’s bidding.

The New York Post, which has for months turned its news pages into a serial advertisement for mayoral control, chirped that the new board might as well be called “The Board of Bloomberg.”

Queens’ Helen Marshall, who used to be a rather feisty councilmember, actually went so far as to install Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, whose cubicle is a few feet from the mayor’s at City Hall, eviscerating any notion of a separation of powers, precisely what the old law envisioned and required.

This claque then picked Walcott as its chair and met for a grand total of eight minutes, refusing to publish an agenda, allow even a moment of public comment, or meet again until after schools open in September.

The Post crowed that the new board’s resolutions “gave Klein more power than he would have” if the assembly bill extending mayoral control had also passed the senate.

“They shouldn’t have given Klein all that power,” says Brooklyn Assemblyman Jim Brennan, a leading member of the education committee. Brennan points out that the old law, which passed in 1969, granted contracting powers to the board, not just the chancellor, and that the assembly’s bill, which was backed by Bloomberg and approved by a 121 to 18 vote in the assembly, imposed some new restraints on the chancellor’s contracting authority. But the resolution passed by the new board gave Klein absolute power over all contracts, prompting Brennan to charge that the board “abused their power.”

Cathy Nolan, the chair of the assembly education committee, ducked Voice attempts to get her to comment on the differences between the assembly bill and the new board’s resolution.

Carlo Scissura, Brooklyn’s new member, quickly proved himself the comedic equal of the man who appointed him, Markowitz, who loves to preen around in a blue and gold boxing robe to celebrate his borough’s official colors. Scissura, who is also Markowitz’s chief, actually declared: “This board is not a rubber stamp.” Scissura’s last public school position was as a member of a community school board under the old system — a post he was thrown out of by the prior chancellor, Harold Levy, when he failed to show up for an educational seminar all members were required to attend. When Scissura ran for city council in 2001 he falsely claimed in his campaign literature that he was a board member when he’d been out of office for months.

When the Voice called Molinaro’s office to get a little biographical info on his appointee, Ed Burke, who is Molinaro’s top aide, a Molinaro staffer said they couldn’t answer any questions about their own deputy borough president. They told us they were instructed to refer all questions to Klein’s press office. All we wanted to know was if Burke had kids in public schools. As it turns out, none of the members appointed by Molinaro, Markowitz and Stringer — Burke, Scissura and Jimmy Yan — have children, one more way the new board is out of step with the assembly bill, which required that seven public school parents be named to the Panel on Educational Policy, the facsimile of the board that’s existed since 2002.

Stringer, who was publicly ruminating about running for the U.S. Senate just a few weeks ago, insisted in a Voice interview that the new board’s abject subservience to Bloomberg “didn’t diminish borough presidents,” but showed how willing they were “to take decisive action without seeking political advantage” at a crisis moment. Asked to explain why there was no public comment or agenda, Stringer said: “That was not us.” Pressed about the delegation of full contracting powers, Stringer said that he “fully intends to raise that issue” and put the assembly bill’s contracting powers “in place in the very near future” if the Albany deadlock continues.

His defense was that it was an emergency and that every action they took was predicated on the notion that it was “temporary” and would only last a couple of weeks. Asked repeatedly why the resolution couldn’t just as easily have limited the contracting powers to those under the old law or the new assembly bill, Stringer said simply that “the mayor and Marty,” a reference to Markowitz, negotiated that.

To see how far we’ve come, the last Board of Ed president was Bill Thompson, who rode that job into his current position as comptroller. Robert Wagner and David Dinkins were Stringer predecessors whose records as Manhattan borough president carried them into Gracie Mansion, and former Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer was the last Democratic nominee for mayor. Now, not all the clowns are in Albany.

Research Credit: Johanna Barr, Lucy Jordan