2002-03-20 / Editorials


Board Of Ed Belongs In Court House

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed moving the central Board of Education from its present Brooklyn headquarters to the recently renovated Tweed Court House a few steps away from City Hall. Bloomberg's reasons for the proposal are both symbolic and strategic, and to us, equally meritorious.

The central School Board moved into its headquarters at 110 Livingston St. in 1939. One problem attendant upon the often troubled relationship between the Board of Education and whoever occupied the mayor's office in City Hall was distance—110 Livingston St. is over a mile away from City Hall. It is impossible to develop a close working relationship, no matter how efficient telecommunications may be.

Another hazard created by the mere fact of the distance between the Board of Education and the Mayor's Office is the autonomy that has arisen. The central Board, with no oversight from city government, grew into an organization that has made its own rules and done its own thing. While we agree that exercising initiative and assuming responsibility are highly valuable qualities for any member of any organization, without clear and obvious guidelines, it is easy to get off the track, and once so distracted it can be difficult for any organization to reconnect with a corporate philosophy.

The central Board is said by many—and with reason—to be just too big. Many layers of bureaucracy separate classrooms from the authorities at 110 Livingston St. who direct what goes on in those classrooms often with no real knowledge of what the needs of students or classroom teachers may be. This leads to "Charge of the Light Brigade" syndrome—the six hundred who rode into the valley of death and were ruthlessly cut down on that occasion were ordered into battle by an officer who wasn't there looking at the territory. The 800 employees at the central Board may be a function of the fact that 110 Livingston St. holds 332,000 square feet of space in 13 floors. Clutter expands to fill the space available and so do bureaucracies. Moving the Board of Education into the 177,500-square-foot, four-floor Tweed Court House would force some drastic cuts in administrative personnel, very possibly resulting in an organization certainly leaner and more efficient, if not necessarily meaner.

Mayor Bloomberg also would put two schools in the 140-year-old Court House, which seems another excellent idea. One school would meet the needs of the city's best and brightest, the other would serve some of those most at risk of failure and dropping out. Encouraging the smart kids to mentor others has worked very well on a number of occasions—Forest Hills H.S. put special education and honor students together in the school store to the benefit of both and it is reasonable to assume that such a setup would work equally well in the Tweed Court House. Schools in the same building as the central Board of Education would serve another useful purpose—to remind board members and employees why they are there in the first place. Bloomberg the businessman knows the importance of quality control. With students in the same building the Board of Education would have every reason and opportunity to see firsthand how well or badly its policies and procedures are succeeding.

Critics point out that the Tweed Court House, built between 1861 sand 1881 at a cost of more than $15 million by Tammany Hall Boss William Tweed, who made a fortune in kickbacks during construction and who eventually died in prison after being convicted in the ensuing scandal, was extensively renovated during the administration of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in order to move the Museum of the City of New York from its present upper Fifth Avenue location. Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern feels that the museum constitutes a far more suitable use for the building. "These are beautiful, monumental spaces. They shouldn't become a rabbit warren of offices," he said of Bloomberg's proposal. This was a misgiving on our part, too, until we thought the matter over some more.

True, the Tweed Court House is a beautifully renovated space, and cubicles, file cabinets and computers crammed into it as has been done in the one-time Board of Estimate Room at City Hall would be incongruous and somewhat awkward. But we firmly believe that a beautiful space ennobles. We feel that the students especially, but also board workers as well, would find themselves demonstrating care and concern for their surroundings and very possibly themselves as well.

The Museum of the City of New York certainly deserves a suitable location and we hope that one can quickly be found for it. But the advantages of putting the Board of Education under the mayor's eye, if not immediately under his control, by moving the institution, lock, stock and Delaney books, to the Tweed Court house, would be of immediate and long-term benefit. The Tweed Court House is a valuable legacy to the people of the City of New York. We can think of no better way to use that legacy than as an investment in the city's future which will best be brought about through a slimmed-down central Board of Education in a place where the mayor can keep an eye on it.

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