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Bottom drawer bureau.

Bottom Drawer Bureau

110 Livingston Street, a dour gray building in downtown Brooklyn and headquarters of the New York City public school system, is a well-known symbol of bureaucratic nonsense and paralysis. In the face of steadily declining performance by its students, it grinds on as usual, perturbed but unmoved, spitting out paper, regulations--and high school graduates who cannot say how many quarters make $1.75.

"By far, 110 Livingston makes 1600 Pennsylvania look pretty good," says Robert F. Wagner Jr., who was the Board of Education president. Early in his tenure, when controversy arose over an erroneous charge that school health clinics were distributing condoms, he learned how difficult it is for even the board president to navigate the maze of units, offices, bureaus, and divisions that is 110 Livingston. It took Wagner dozens of phone calls and more than 10 days just to learn how many clinics the board operated among its nearly 1,000 schools.

Although 110's moribundity has been a fact of life--and a municipal joke--for years, it has become more urgent to do something to make the place work. The future is at stake. New York City, which already has a weak manufacturing base, cannot compete economically if it cannot supply competent workers. It cannot solve the problems of its ghettos if nearly half its ninth-grade students never graduate.

In many of his speeches, Richard Green, the late New York City Schools chancellor, used to say that if New York's public school system wasn't made to work, then the future of public education in all large cities was doomed--because New York is now confronting the problems those other school systems will face eventually. Alas, in Green's brief reign, little progress was made. Instead, the bureaucracy spent most of its energy on itself.

"The game plan over there was to protect the bureaucracy, not to serve the children," says Harvey Robins, who was deputy chancellor for finance at 110 Livingston before fleeing last year to a top job in the cabinet of New York's new mayor, David Dinkins.

Robins recalls attending meetings with representatives of other divisions who would cheerfully agree to deadlines for producing memos on issues under discussion, but who would then silently decide not to do what they'd agreed upon. "They had set the policy by inaction." Robins says.

Hand job

If sometimes slow in producing memos, the 110 Livingston bureaucrats are infamous for the ones they finally do write, or the ones they merely distribute, as illustrated by one ridiculous example last year:

When the bureaucracy got around to giving its teachers AIDS-prevention material, it included for all 64,000 teachers copies of a memo from the health department on how to wash your hands. Though it's hard to gripe about concern over a deadly health crisis, the memo was surely a preposterous waste of the copy machine. In seven detailed steps, it described the lost art of "proper handwashing"--from removing one's bracelets and rings right down to discarding used paper towels in a "receptacle."

"Apply soap, lather well," step three advised.

A if New York schools didn't have real problems. With 950,000 students and 110,000 mostly union-protected employees, the system would be the eighth largest city in the nation, and its budget is nearly $7 billion--bigger than the total budgets of 15 states, more than the gross national product of many countries. The system serves 700,000 meals a day and provides transportation to 550,000 pupils. The average number of students absent each day--140,000--would make up the sixth largest public school system in the nation. There are 120,000 students in special education, kids with a variety of emotional and physical ills requiring many specialized programs.

Nearly 280,000 students come from public-assistance families and thousands more from single-parent homes or homes undermined by drugs and domestic violence. The system has little power to attack the causes of its students' problems, but must try to overcome the symptoms.

To complicate matters further, while the New York City Board of Education runs the high schools and many special education programs, 32 elected local boards, allegedly representing the full contentious range of the city's multi-ethnic, multicultural universe, run the elementary schools. The Board, however, still doles out the money, has overall authority for policy and curriculum, and must monitor the educational performance of the local boards.

The setup was a well-meaning compromise to a partially race-based uproar over decentralization more than two decades ago. "We created the best and worst worlds then," says Wagner. "We gave control to the communities, but created a centralized bureaucracy that has taken almost no responsibility for the welfare of kids."

"Information exists in an overabundance here at Central, an overlapping, disparate, unstructured mass of data that lacks a strategic approach to its productive utilization," according to an assistant to Richard Green, the chancellor who died of an asthma attack a year after taking over. "Overlapping powers and duplicate responsibilities, both among Central offices and between Central and [the schools], reduce efficiency and accountability," echoed another aide.

Memo random talk

Upon taking office, schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez asked his top administrators to submit secret memoranda to him describing their most urgent problems and how they intended to respond to them. Especially considering that jobs were at stake, some responses were nonsensical if not comical illustrations of bureaucratese. More important, the memos revealed what little effect the bureaucrats actually have on students' lives.

The director of the Office of Corporate Affairs wrote that his unit was created to provide "a brokering, facilitating, and marketing focal point" for companies that wanted to help the board educate children. Some of the companies, he noted, preferred an inside program "broker" as opposed to an "external vehicle," so it would be necessary for him to pool resources to meet "major systematic needs." He added: "Internally, it would mean working with those units necessary to properly formulate the issues/areas for addressment."

The director of the Office of Professional Development and Leadership Training--the office that is supposed to help teachers become better teachers--wrote that her No. 1 issue was "Concretizing Mission." That meant, she explained, "capacity building of personnel resources and personal abilities of central board of education, districts and school [sic] to facilitate generating vehicles to assist schools in nurturing student achievement. . . ."

There were numerous other examples of gobbledeygook in the secret memos, written by people making $75,000 to $100,000 a year:

* "Extant data systems contain an abundance of information which is underutilized due to deficit staff knowledge and abilities due to inaccessibility." Translation: We have a lot of information we can't understand or use.

* "The management of information requires organizing and structuring data into conceptually clear and logical component ideas that can be transmitted in forms that are user-friendly." Translation: Keep it simple. That's something New York City's education administrators rarely do.

A real Lulu

Out in the schools, where the city's future is on the line, most principals view the bureaucrats as adversaries rather than as partners--as bothersome, demanding in-laws who are all talk and no action. "They're immobilized," says Tobias Sumner, principal of a Bronx grade school, "they can't make things happen."

That's no surprise to anyone who's laid eyes on the department's organizational chart: It takes 82 pages to diagram the board's divisions, bureaus, offices, and units. The diagram shows no fewer than 17 offices engaged in monitoring various programs.

"The only thing the bureaucracy hasn't tried to solve by memo is cancer," says Jules Linden, principal of a Manhattan junior high school. "My rule of thumb is, when people can't see me because of paperwork demands, I dump [the paperwork]--and most of the time it's not missed."

"There was a big gap between what I did and its effect," admits Harriet Brown, who wrote reports and evaluated data for the high school evaluation unit of the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Assessment. She remembers going to schools to conduct surveys about programs, but having no place on her forms to put comments that mattered. "Someone would say, 'It's a really good program but it needs to start in an earlier grade.' I could not put that in my report because I was only there to gather statistics."

Felton Johnson, the former principal of a highly successful intermediate school located in what was at the time the nation's poorest congressional district, remembers once trying to find out whether exceptional eighth graders who had done work most high school students could not do could get a few high school credits for their labor, which would allow them to learn even more by enabling them to be placed in advanced courses in high school. The board's curriculum division sent him to the high school division, which sent him to the state education department, which sent him to the high school division, which sent him back home. "I went into the cave and fought the monster," he says, "but I couldn't get anywhere and I gave up."

Compulsive, unimaginative rule-following, a trait of large bureaucracies, is carried to extremes at 110 Livingston. Brown cites that as the main reason she finally resigned. Only the person assigned to the copying machine was allowed to copy her documents, and only the person in charge of supplies could go to the supply cabinet for her. When Joseph Viteritti, a former New York University professor brought in to shake things up, resigned from headquarters in similar frustration, the powers that be had a clear and immediate response: He would have to leave his personalized memo pads behind. "I guess," shrugs Viteritti, "they figured someone else would come along with my name."

110 Livingston's bureaucratic fever is infectious. Plenty of New York schools have caught it too. Last year, a Bronx elementary school principal, Larcelia Kebe, developed a new document for teachers to fill out: "Request Form for Permission to Come Behind the Counter in the Main Office."

Such nonsense underlines how difficult it will be for Joseph Fernandez--the ninth chancellor in the past 16 years--to restore New York City's schools. As things stand now, people who do well in the schools are rewarded with jobs "downtown," though they may be inexperienced managers. On the other hand, those who are incompetent are often banished downtown. And most of these people are protected by labor agreements that make it virtually impossible to fire them.

Recently, Fernandez has tried to make personnel decisions more meritorious and open--predictably, such measures have landed him in court battling school boards, superintendents, and principals. But he needs to go even further. New York's educational bureaucracy has sprawled so far out of control and strayed so far away from the system's real mission that Fernandez must dissolve offices and fire administrators. It's too hard and too late to try to figure out how to salvage the mess that exists now. Instead, we need to get rid of the monster, introduce clearly defined programs that serve essential student needs, and staff them with people who can make them work.

An unintentional reminder of the New York school system's lethargy hangs on the wall near Fernandez's office. It's a student's painting of "Adorable Lulu," a haughty cat. "Her function is to sit and be admired," the young artist wrote.

It's time to kick the cat.

Gene Mustain is a reporter for the New York Daily News.
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Title Annotation:The Jokers Who Run Our Schools
Author:Mustain, Gene
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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