by Liza Featherstone
Our Fake School Board
“If you vote on this contract tonight, you stand exposed in front of all of us,” Amy Muldoon, a Verizon worker, told the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) in a rowdy mid-August meeting, as the PEP was set to approve a Department of Education contract with her employer despite an ongoing strike over employee health benefits. “You have an opportunity to do the right thing,” she told the PEP, while holding her baby, who wore a charmingly elfin red hat. “I want you to look at this boy. Think about him not getting his vaccinations! How could you sleep knowing that our children don’t have healthcare?”
The crowd—public school parents and Communications Workers of America members—erupted in wild applause. It was what parent advocate Leonie Haimson called a “Norma Rae” moment.
Meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy, known by its cheerful acronym, PEP, are full of such inspiring moments. It’s empowering, as a parent and as a citizen, to walk into one of those meetings and take the mike. It looks like democracy in action: the people are speaking! Directly to the bureaucrats making the decisions! There’s just one problem: the bureaucrats are only pretending to listen. Nothing the public says can influence their vote.
Despite the regular opportunity to hear from the people affected by PEP decisions—the panel meets monthly, its meetings are public, and the agenda is posted in advance—a majority of its members simply rubber-stamp the mayor’s agenda. Why?
It’s their job. Eight of the panel’s 13 members are appointed by the mayor. No contract is too wasteful or unjust for them, no scheme to cram more schools into already-overcrowded buildings is too reckless, and no reform too educationally unsound. “Report Card” reviewed more than a year of PEP minutes and found no example of a mayoral appointee voting “no” on a DOE proposal. Even when children’s safety is at stake, they cave to Bloomberg. Last year, mayoral appointee Linda Lausell Bryant abstained from a vote on whether a high school for “at-risk” young men should share a building with an elementary school. Enough rubber-stampers were absent that Bryant’s abstention mattered, and the proposal was delayed. By the next meeting, however, Bryant had recovered from her bout of righteousness, and the proposal passed.
Not only are the mayoral appointees appointed by Bloomberg, but they also serve at his pleasure. In 2004, two of them announced their opposition to Bloomberg’s plan to end “social promotion” for third graders. They were right to dissent: a large body of research shows that making children repeat grades does no good—and may even hurt their chances of future academic success. Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows, too, that systems with high rates of grade retention are dysfunctional: countries boasting high academic achievement, like Finland or Japan, rarely hold kids back, while underachievers like the United States do it all the time. Undaunted by such inconvenient empiricism, Bloomberg fired the renegades just before the vote, and replaced them with more loyal lackeys. The mayor told reporters at the time, “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives, and they’re going to vote for things I believe in.”
Five PEP members are appointed by the borough presidents. These members act with some independence, with Bronx representative Monica Major and Manhattan representative Patrick Sullivan particularly rebellious in every meeting. But because the mayoral appointees are the majority, the PEP is rigged so that the mayor always wins. Asked why the PEP can’t have more independent members, then-deputy mayor Dennis Walcott told the New York Times in 2009, “We don’t want to create all these layers of checks and balances.”
So who are these people who willingly sign up to be the mayor’s puppets? And given that they receive no salary, why do the mayor’s appointees accept this humiliating job? They’re yelled at in public every month, and never get to make their own decisions. Indeed, it’s not unusual for the mayor’s PEP minions to quit—some have lasted only a couple months. But those who hang in there have deep ties to the mayor—or badly need to continue to curry favor with him.
As former administration honchos, some PEP appointees owe Bloomberg their career. For the first two years of the Bloomberg administration, PEP vice chair Lisette Nieves was former chief of staff at the city’s department of Youth and Community Development. Gitte Peng worked for five years as the senior policy adviser to then-deputy mayor Dennis Walcott. Jeffrey Kay was director of the mayor’s office of operations, and before that, held several other administration positions. Of these former administration officials, perhaps the most grotesque choice for the panel is Tino Hernandez. He was chair of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) from 2001 to 2008, resigning when, after NYCHA repeatedly failed to fix the system’s elevators, a five-year old Brooklyn boy fell to his death trying to escape a stalled elevator. With this record, “Report Card” would not hire him as a babysitter, much less entrust our children’s education to him. One of the Bloomberg lackeys installed during the 2004 grade-retention emergency, Hernandez is chair of the PEP.
There is always a CUNY official represented on the PEP. At present it’s Eduardo Marti, the president of Queensborough Community College, which, like all CUNY schools, could not run without city money.
Others serve on the PEP to practice crony nonprofiteering—they run organizations heavily dependent on city handouts. Linda Lausell Bryant is the head of Inwood House, which provides support to teen mothers and receives large grants from the city. Inwood House has also received personal donations from the mayor (when he was funneling such philanthropy through the Carnegie Foundation), as the Daily News has reported. Bryant clearly has a conscience, but as a mayoral appointment to the PEP, she is in no position to use it.
Joe Chan has perhaps the most egregious conflict of interest as the president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP), which works to develop businesses in Brooklyn, not only depends on city funding—at one point, a $6 million no-bid contract—but was created by the city in 2006, with Chan, who was already part of the Bloomberg administration, installed to do its bidding. So Chan has not only worked for Bloomberg but also got his current job from the mayor. His job at DBP is to keep the mayor happy—as has been widely reported, this has meant that it’s impossible for him to have working relationships with many of Brooklyn’s own elected officials.
Not only does the position of “Bloomberg lackey” take up most of Chan’s resume, but as head of the DBP, he’s a central player in the squintingly shady Atlantic Yards project. He has been investigated by the state attorney general for misuse of city funding for using city money to lobby city officials, which is, under state law, not allowed. As the New York Times reported in 2009, Chan spent $200,000 on lobbying for the Atlantic Yards construction. Neither the DBP nor the attorney general’s office will say whether this investigation is still ongoing, but “Report Card” assumes that if it had been cheerfully resolved, either body would be happy to tell us so. (Of course, since the DBP was created by Bloomberg to advance Bloomberg’s agenda, it matters only slightly whether or not the DBP “lobbied” anyone.) Given this historically casual relationship to public funds, it’s particularly rich that as head of the PEP committee that oversees DOE contracts, Chan decided it no longer needed to meet.
PEP members often don’t even see the contracts they are voting on, or other city contracts that affect these deals. A look at the Verizon contract shows why. The terms of the contract—which “Report Card” has obtained—stipulate that the city must spend at least $40 million a year with Verizon, and if it doesn’t, the city is on the hook for 50 percent of the shortfall, to be paid “promptly” to the company. Thus, if the city did not include a large entity like the DOE in the contract, it would face costly consequences. The notion that the DOE even had a choice—and that any public voices like Amy Muldoon’s mattered—was an illusion. But as Manhattan PEP representative Patrick Sullivan points out, this forced contract was not in kids’ best interests: it says that Verizon doesn’t have to provide phone service under some circumstances, including—of most recent relevance—a strike. Since the DOE has banned cell phones in schools, what if there is an emergency? “What if something bad happens, and the teacher picks up the phone and there’s no dial tone?” asks Sullivan, whose two sons attend District 2 schools.
Sullivan and others have advocated changing the PEP structure so that there would be only six mayoral appointees, and appointees would have fixed terms. Sullivan acknowledges—though he doesn’t think it’s politically feasible—that it would be more democratic to have a school board whose members were elected by the public, as most of the rest of the nation does. To him, mayoral control reflects a profound disrespect for New York City’s diverse, urban population. As Sullivan says, “For us not to have the same role in our kids’ education as people who live in the suburbs or Middle America is patronizing.”