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MAYORS IN CHARGE

Unhappy with the schools in their cities, mayors in Cleveland, Boston, Chicago and Baltimore have stepped in. With Mayor Masiello proposing to take more control of schools here, those cities offer some big lessons for Buffalo.

A handful of big cities have decided the education crowd responsible for messing up their schools can't be trusted to fix them.

The elected school boards and their bureaucracies are giving way to mayors.

In Boston, Chicago and Cleveland, the mayors have gained control of the school systems. They appoint the board of educations and hire the superintendents. And when things go wrong, they catch the heat.

"Urban school districts are in crisis. They've become almost ungovernable, and it's no wonder the mayors are thinking about taking over these districts," said William Boyd, a Penn State University education professor.

"Mayoral takeovers are not a silver bullet, they may not be panacea, but they might be a step in the right direction. People are willing to take a chance because what they're looking at now is so unattractive," he said.

Mayor Masiello, concerned with the state of Buffalo schools, doesn't have designs for a wholesale takeover of the district. He wants some influence, primarily through two appointed members on the Board of Education, and the power to veto labor contracts.

Experiments with mayoral takeovers in other cities provide lessons for Buffalo and other cities wrestling with mayoral involvement. Although the wave of mayor takeovers is too new for an extensive history, this is the experience so far:

* The more dramatic the shake-up, the more significant the results. Richard Daley in Chicago gained the most sweeping powers of any mayor, and he has the most to show for it.

* Districts achieved greater fiscal stability and increased funding, particularly for renovating and building new schools.

* Management of the school systems improved, the result of clearer lines of accountability, a greater willingness to confront unions and other special interests, and the hiring of administrators from outside educational circles.

* Improved student achievement does not always occur. Test scores improved in Chicago but remain below national norms. Scores improved only marginally in Boston, which is taking a more incremental approach.

* Superintendents benefit because they don't have to deal with politically volatile boards that often micromanage.

* Appointed school boards maintain a lower profile than their elected predecessors. They generally don't involve themselves in the day-to-day management of the district and include members with a broader range of backgrounds, including business executives who usually don't seek office on elected school boards.

* Fears about a greater politicization of the schools haven't been realized. Elected boards foster their own brand of politics over the years, and appointed boards under mayoral control tend to be more business-like. Mayors focus on filling the top job and leaving the rest of the staff alone.

* The greatest undisputed benefit has been an intangible -- an air of increased public optimism about the schools in the wake of mayoral takeovers. While some community activists in Boston, Chicago and Cleveland believe mayoral takeovers vest too much power in one place, and at the expense of democracy, the general public feels otherwise. In Boston, for example, the electorate voted by a 2-to-1 margin to keep the appointed school board after a five-year trial.

Not all experiments with mayoral control are successful. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to share power with state officials after his appointed board didn't get the job done. The cautionary tale: Mayors aren't necessarily equipped to master the operations of school districts.

In short, the jury is still out on mayoral takeovers.

"It's too early to tell. Chicago had a short-run success. Boston has (adopted) more of a long-range strategy," said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor who has studied mayoral takeovers.

"I think the mayor taking over may give some new legitimacy to the schools and some new hope to people," he said. "In both Chicago and Boston, there's a feeling, 'We're on the move, things are going to get better."

Mayoral takeovers

Mayors want greater control over their school systems because they believe they can make educators more accountable.

Masiello and his counterparts in Rochester, Syracuse and Albany are talking about gaining a foothold in their districts because they are dissatisfied with the way the schools are being run. The complaints: generous labor contracts, disappointing academic achievement and a lack of administrative accountability.

"The mayors are concerned about performance in the classroom; they're concerned about the escalating costs without accountability," Masiello said.

The upstate mayors are not alone. In big cities across the nation, from New York to Los Angeles, mayors are expressing frustration and trying to obtain greater control.

Some efforts involve half steps. New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has pushed for great fiscal control and a tighter rein on administrators. Philadelphia's mayor has thrown his weight behind the city's reform-minded superintendent. In Los Angeles, the mayor is running a slate of candidates for the school board.

Three cities have taken things a step further. They've turned away from elected school boards and given power to the mayor. Boston did it in 1992, Chicago in 1995 and Cleveland last fall.

Mayoral control represents a return to an earlier era when City Hall ran school systems. Beginning early this century, municipal reformers began pushing for independent school boards, contending a fire wall needed to be built between the schools and politicians because of abuses involving patronage and the awarding of contracts. Hence the rise of elected school boards and bureaucracies staffed by educators.

Sentiment is beginning to reverse itself. That sentiment is based in the feeling that elected school boards politicized school operations and are often consumed by infighting and that the education bureaucracies are resistant to change and often are self-serving.

Together, school boards and their administrative staffs failed to deal with the major problems that confront their districts.

"The systems that were taken over were so eroded, and the people were so unhappy, that there was very little downside risk in having the mayor them take over. How much worse can it get?" Kirst said.

Mayors minimize the divisive politics typical of many elected boards in big cities, benefiting both mayors and superintendents, said Penn State's Boyd.

"They don't face the problem of divided and unstable school boards, which are one of the Achilles' heels of urban school districts," he said.

With the power comes responsibility.

"In most urban school systems, everyone is shifting the blame to other people, everybody is pointing fingers," said Kenneth Wong, a professor of education the University of Chicago, who has studied Chicago schools. "Under mayor control, for better or worse, you have a single office responsible for the most important municipal service."

Chicago the boldest experiment

Chicago made the biggest changes and achieved the most immediate results.

Daley obtained the most power of any of the mayors. The mayor not only appoints the board and superintendent but also the district's four other top administrators. As in the other cities, the mayor selects board members from a list of nominees recommended by a citizen panel.

His appointed school leaders enjoy unprecedented flexibility because the Illinois State Legislature limited union bargaining rights, eliminated teacher and principal tenure in low-performing schools and ended lifetime job security for principals.

Standards for both students and schools were raised. High school freshmen who fail a basic proficiency test are required to attend summer school. Low-performing schools are placed on probation or reconstituted altogether.

The result?

* Teachers and administrators are held accountable when their students don't learn. One hundred nine low-performing schools have been placed on probation. Five principals and 30 percent of the teaching staff were replaced at the seven worst-performing high schools. And the job of running a school is no longer tantamount to lifetime employment: 80 percent of principals retired or were fired during the first four years of reform in the late 1980s.

Student attitudes are changing, Wong said, along with test scores.

"They know the district means business," Wong said. "They're taking this a lot more seriously."

Test scores, among the worst in the country in the 1980s, are improving, although the tests being used aren't considered as challenging as those in many other districts. The share of elementary pupils reading at national norms has grown from 24 to 35 percent this decade. The percent meeting the national norm in math is up from 27 to 40 percent.

Progress has been slower in the high schools, but Wong notes that scores have started to pick up at the worst of the high schools.

* District finances are in better shape.

"In the three years since the takeover, I think there is a consensus the financial aspects have improved considerably," Wong said.

More money is making its way to the classroom as the central administration staff is scaled back. The amount of discretionary funds given to school councils has increased nearly fourfold.

More than $3.5 billion in work has been started to build, expand and renovate schools.

* The central office is run more efficiently.

"Daley sent 100 people from his office to take over every function of the schools. This was huge coup d'etat," said Kirst, of Stanford.

Daley has ended the practice of only hiring professional educators to run the business end of the district. In Chicago, more than half the top managers now come from a noneducational background, and the chief executive officer is Daley's former budget chief.

"You broaden the pool of expertise tremendously," Wong said. "Educators are not trained to deal with union collective bargaining or balancing the budget."

He credits the new management team for some of the district's progress. The combination of incentives and sanctions on school staff and students is another factor.

Most important, Wong said, has been Daley's leadership.

"He's been willing to use his political capital. Is your mayor in Buffalo willing to use his political capital? That ultimately is the question."

Boston's incremental approach

Progress appears slower in Boston, for a variety of reasons.

The city's elected school board was notoriously fractious and elected with low voter turnouts, when there were contests at all.

In 1991, the Massachusetts State Legislature did away with the board in favor of one appointed by the mayor. The elected board, as a last salvo, hired a new superintendent in its waning months and gave her a five-year contract. The new board couldn't appoint its own district chief until 1995, when it hired Thomas Payzant, assistant secretary of education during President Clinton's first term.

The mayor doesn't have the same clout in Boston as in Chicago. The board, for example, appoints the superintendent and senior staff. In many ways, Boston operates more like a traditional school district than does Chicago, and Payzant has taken an incremental approach to improving the district.

"He's very a deliberate, steady-as-you-go sort of guy. He doesn't do radical things, but he is quite tenacious," said Ellen Guiney, head of a Boston school foundation and one of the architects of the takeover plan.

Rather than focusing on improving test scores, Boston has first rethought its curriculum, focused on literacy and invested teacher training and technology.

"Boston probably has the best-wired urban district in the country," Ms. Guiney said.

The district's approach is expected to lay the foundation for improved student performance down the road, in part by improving teaching skills.

"It's not just kid learning, but adult learning that has to go on. It's going to take six, seven, eight years to turn an urban school district around," Ms. Guiney said.

Tests scores have improved only marginally so far, she said. Nevertheless, the district's "accomplishments are very solid," she maintained.

Chief among them, she said, was bringing sanity to the school board, which previously had been "a circus."

The new board includes parents, university professors and community and business leaders. There's no micromanagement or grandstanding and less pandering to school unions and other special interests, she said.

There have been disappointments, however.

The board hasn't done a good job of communicating with the public, Ms. Guiney said. Contract settlements are better but could be better. But on balance, she said, the education system improved.

While the district has gotten "somewhat better," Charles Glenn, a former state education official and now a professor at Boston University, said he has mixed feelings about the board's insulated nature.

"The appointed board has removed the schools from the political give and take. I'm not for that, because democracy and politics is the way you make decisions," he said. "But because of a highly racially charged situation and the intense political culture, the board had become very dysfunctional.

"These days, a seat on the board is a quick road to oblivion. They're not well known, they just take care of business."

Cleveland just beginning

Cleveland is taking several steps to straighten out its troubled schools. School vouchers were introduced on a trial basis in September 1996, and last September Mayor Michael White assumed control of the public school system.

Cleveland earned a reputation as a comeback city, but that success hasn't extended to its schools. A federal court placed the district under state control in 1995, saying it was "in a state of crisis" both academically and fiscally.

A blue-ribbon panel studied school governance models and recommended a mayoral takeover, which the Ohio State Legislature approved. White appoints board members, selects the chairman and hires a chief executive officer.

The state legislation also terminated the contracts of all central office administrators, and 18 of 200-plus were not retained.

It's too early to tell how Cleveland's experiment will turn out. The new CEO, who has made a career of turning around some of the worst of New York City's public schools, was hired in November and is still getting a feel for the district.

Baltimore changes directions

Baltimore modifed its appointed board, which was put in place in the 1970s. The mayor not only appointed the superintendent and the school board, but city government handled the district's contract negotiations and personnel and purchasing.

The setup wasn't working, said Christopher Cross, who was president of the Maryland State Board of Education at the time the changes were negotiated.

"The system was in rapid deterioration. The mayor had the chance to have total control, and it didn't work out," he said.

The mayor got bogged down in the politics and complexity of running a large school system, Cross said.

"It turned out to be much more complex than he bargained for," he said.

Two lawsuits involving special education and adequacy of funding proved to be a catalyst to changes approved by the courts and the Maryland State Legislature in 1996. The board is now appointed jointly by the mayor and governor, and the schools are managing their own personnel and purchasing departments.

The state agreed to provide the district with additional aid, but with strings attached, including development of a master plan acceptable to state education officials. An interim superintendent was brought in to develop the plan, revise the curriculum and start cleaning house.

Test scores have improved slightly, but as in Boston, the major reforms haven't been in place long enough to take root. But, so far, so good.

"It's clear the situation is improving a good deal in terms of doing such ordinary things as getting textbooks into classrooms," said Cross, now executive director of the Council for Basic Education.

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