Home > Uncategorized > Decision to Open NYC Schools Illustrates Everything Wrong with Convoluted Governance Structure, Inequitable Funding, Deferred Maintenance

Decision to Open NYC Schools Illustrates Everything Wrong with Convoluted Governance Structure, Inequitable Funding, Deferred Maintenance

July 7, 2020

Eliza Shapiro’s article on the reopening of NYC schools offers a good example of everything that is wrong with the the school system in New York City. It has a flawed governance structure of NYC schools, the funding for individual schools is inequitable and the staffing decisions are impacted by union contracts and charters, and problems associated with deferred maintenance are crippling some schools while others are not impacted at all.

Governance of NYC schools is a mess and has been throughout my lifetime. When I was in college I wrote a term paper on the issue based on the movement at that time to decentralize the school district in an effort to meet the unique needs of the neighborhoods in the city. The decentralization movement collided with the then nascent union movement because some neighborhoods wanted to control the assignment of teachers in a fashion that contradicted the language in the contract that governed the entire city. After decentralization failed, the district was reunified and led by a single school board who fell under the rules dictated by the State. When Mayor Bloomberg was elected, he sought and gained control over the appointment of the schools with the proviso that the Governor retained ultimate authority over some key decisions. This led to the current predicament where the lines of authority over school district governance are sufficiently vague enough that every decision the Mayor makes regarding schools— including some day-to-day ones like closing schools because of predicted snowstorms— can be second guessed by the Governor. As the article notes, this whole governance issue is making the reopening decision a political nightmare for everyone in authority and the resulting ambiguity about school openings is adversely impacting parents, teachers, and students.

The funding inequities between NYC schools and the nearby suburbs is well documented in this blog… but the inherent inequities within the school district are just as problematic. Inequities are built into ALL large districts. Having led an upstate NY district with 14 schools and a country district in MD with 42 schools it is impossible to devise a purely equitable means of funding them. The closest a school system can come is to provide equitable staffing ratios and allocations for all schools and use the Federal funds to augment the funding for schools serving children with high needs. In New York City, the staffing allocations are even more muddled because of the plethora of charter schools, many of whom receive private donations that have the effect of increasing per pupil spending in a way that contributes to inequities. Add to this the school choice options that result in affluent parents migrating to desirable schools where fundraising can result in even more inequities. While Ms. Shapiro’s article only makes a passing reference to these baked-in inequities, they play a major role in distorting spending on a school-by-school basis.

Finally, there is an inequity in facilities that is a consequence of deferred maintenance. Ms. Shapiro explains the predicament well:

The condition of the city’s schools is among the biggest hurdles. Many are over a century old, and overcrowding is a persistent challenge. Some schools hold classes in hallways. Others rely on classroom trailers for additional space.

Cafeterias, auditoriums and gyms in some buildings are poorly ventilated. To address that, custodians may have to replace air filtration systems and fix jammed windows over the next two months.

The funding needed to maintain schools is often the first place school districts look when budgets are tight… and if a school is “over a century old” the costs to do ANY work can be prohibitive because ANY spending will trigger the need to make the school ADA compliant, could result in costly asbestos and lead paint removal, and result in HVAC upgrades. The pandemic is forcing schools to spend lots of money now if they hope to open in September.

But… the funding for schools is plummeting, the lines of authority between the Governor and the Mayor, the Mayor and the Superintendent, and the Superintendent and the union are either blurry, contentious, or both. Parents want answers, businesses need schools to open, and no one wants to see their taxes increase. Given this set of circumstances in March, school districts punted and offered de facto supported home schooling. That failed in March… but it appears to be the only solution for September unless funding is provided quickly and decisively. That COULD happen… but it seems unlikely.

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