Mayoral control, but for how long?

When Faith Ledger’s son started second grade, his teachers quickly labeled him a special education student. But Ledger’s son scored well on academic tests. He just had a speech impediment. Ledger said she tried to tell teachers, principals, the school board - anyone who would listen- that her son was not learning impaired.

“I went from person to person, entity to entity, school board to superintendent. I was fighting invisible people,” she said. Eventually, Ledger gave up. That was back when the Board of Education ruled New York City’s schools. Ledger said she couldn’t navigate the labyrinthine former system, then-governed by 32 separate community school boards.

“I’m done with the Board of Education. This was my fifth child,” she said. Ledger instead decided to homeschool her son. He recently graduated high school and enrolled in college.

Last month, she was one of hundreds of parents and community members who filled the auditorium at the New York City Technical College in Brooklyn. The State Assembly played host to the forum on mayoral control, the system of school governance that in 2002 abolished local school boards, granting sole power over city schools to the mayor and a school chancellor whom he appointed. State legislators must decide by June 30 whether to extend the law that allows mayoral control.

Despite her frustrations with the old way of doing business, Ledger said she supports mayoral control. Her grandchild will start school soon, and Ledger said she’ll make sure it’s a public school.

If mayoral control doesn’t continue, some say the city’s schools will regress.

Pastor David Brawley of the St. Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn said that when the Board of Education ran city schools, predominantly poor black and Latino neighborhoods were education wastelands.

“They were dead, with low performance, and low expectations,” he said. Brawley represents East Brooklyn Congregations, which runs several schools under the Department of Education’s small schools initiative. The program was one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first-term initiatives.

Without programs like these, Brawley said, students in his neighborhood would be hopeless.

“Our children suffered the most under the bureaucratic and broken system of the past,” he said. “Our children - by virtue of location and demographics - were sequestered to the worst failing schools in this city, with no hope and no options.”

But Muba Yarofulani, whose four children attend public school, said demographics are key to why she doesn’t support mayoral control. She said it’s the parents who should have control over the schools - not the mayor.

“The word ‘control’ is a negative,” she said. “I’m a parent who believes decisions should not be made without parents being involved. New schools are coming into our community, schools are being closed down and we only know about it after the fact.”

Yarofulani said it’s presumed most African-Americans support mayoral control, but the East Flatbush resident said that even if schools do show some progress, decisions shouldn’t be made by mayoral fiat.

Another detractor, Brooklyn parent Ellen Bilofsky, said iron-fist, top-down management squelches parents’ voices.

“What we have now is essentially a mayoral dictatorship, and we don’t feel that’s a way to govern schools in a democracy.”

City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Bill Thompson agrees. He announced a plan to audit the education department’s facts and figures - both financial figures and educational figures. He says an independent body would finally determine whether or not schools are actually improving.

“This would, in fact, create an independent authority that would oversee testing,” he said in an interview, “oversee graduation and drop-out rates and come up with one number, so that everybody could have faith in it.”

— Brad Davis

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