Unclear when city will have new councils in place

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The city might not meet the state’s December deadline for the elimination of community school boards and their replacement by parent-led district councils, according to a state legislative leader.

In late June, the state passed a law creating community district education councils that must take the place of school boards on Dec. 1. But the change requires action at various levels of government, including city hearings and a federal Department of Justice review, before it can be implemented. So it’s likely that it won’t happen in time and the school boards will have to linger on past the December deadline, said Steve Sanders, chairperson of the Assembly’s education committee.

“Given the fact that the [schools] chancellor decided he wasn’t going to hold public hearings until the end of September, it would seem to me virtually impossible to have the councils established by December 1,” Sanders said this week in a telephone interview.

City education officials have said that they wanted to wait until people got back from vacation before holding in mid to late September hearings on proposed rules for council elections. A spokesperson for the Department of Education did not return a call for comment by press time.

The December deadline was realistic when state lawmakers set it back in June, Sanders said. But Schools Chancellor Joel Klein did not act immediately to schedule hearings, he added. The federal Department of Justice must also review the elections process, which could take up to 60 days.

Sanders said he felt a sense of urgency to replace the school boards with another system of community representation, which would likely be more efficient than most school boards. But one school board leader said that a change mid-year could prove disruptive.

“A school year is a school year,” said Dolores Schaefer, president of the Community School Board in District 1. “If you in the middle of the school year decide you’ll have this whole new body coming, you eliminate the possibility of getting something done during that school year.”

Each of the 32 councils will have nine parents chosen by parent associations, two members appointed by borough presidents and a nonvoting student. Sanders and others have criticized the selection process, saying that all parents in a particular district should have the opportunity to vote for members.

“I think all parents obviously have a stake in the quality of public education in the district, and decisions made affect all children,” Sanders said.

It remains unclear just how the community district education councils will take over the function of the school boards, whose functions and philosophies varied greatly under the previous system.

For example, the old Community School District 2 has zoned elementary schools, while District 1 does not. In addition to admissions, the boards in the two districts also differ in their approach toward gifted and talented education, Schaefer said. Now, Districts 1 and 2 are part of the new Region 9, along with the old districts 4 and 7.

Sanders said he expected there would be a gradual standardization in the functions of all 32 councils.