Asked about current politics, most residents of Westchester County’s second largest city, New Rochelle, will steer discussion towards matters of national and international significance; President Trump’s latest transgressions against political correctness and progressive economics (ignoring the stunning economic achievements of the past 20 months, and a lot more; but THAT we’ll have to cover another time).
North end “swells” distract themselves with the peculiar worldview of the NY Times, MSNBC, CBS, CNN, NPR, but the real news ‘round the “Queen City of the Sound is the sagging state of its economy and the sinking reputation of its schools. The litany of our unique suburban-city’s woes is lengthy: decaying curbs/walks/parks; pothole-pocked, washboard roads endangering private motorists and pedestrians, first-responders and a public dependent on them; city and school budgets overwhelmed by employee pension, health care and salary obligations.
But the factor most critical to the survival of this unique Sound Shore community, the driver of its growth in the boom period of the 1980s, 90s and the “aughts” is the standing of its public schools. Their reputation has historically been among the highest of large suburban districts in metro NYC (and compared favorably with Scarsdale’s as recently as 25 years ago).
Now, local print (or what is left of it – thank G-d for the Rising Newspapers) and broadcasting (thank G-d for WVOX 1460 AM radio) coverage regularly report declining: standard test-scores and four-year high school graduation rates, career-advancement opportunities and teaching environment safety/security (the District’s own “State of the District” document revealed chronic shortfalls in: institutionalizing high school campus admissions/exits, appointment of successor district superintendent and high school principal and restoration of its academic integrity following last year’s scandal over something called the “online credit recovery system,” which is used to help students retake classes and stay on track for graduation.
Such conditions would have been unheard of just eight or nine years ago. What has permitted this free-fall is: the increasing size and complexity of a budget of $260 million for the education of an 11,000-student body, unproved pedagogical methods, costs of textbooks/software/hardware and a growing presence of students from outside the district essentially stealing a putatively “suburban-quality” education from local taxpayers. Compounding the problem is the New Rochelle body politic’s plain failure to pay attention to the business of educating its youth.
Regular district meetings are woefully underattended by the general public. Quite significantly, annual votes on school board vacancies and budgets are usually attended by less than five percent of the populating (more=or-less, less than 10 percent of eligible voters). This signifies a lack of popular “will” to take on the serious matter of preparing young people for careers, higher education and the duties of adult citizenship, such as civic involvement, participation in our republican/democratic system of localized federalist self-government and concern for the welfare of fellow citizens, and community.
Most compelling (and apologies to idealists and anti-cynics everywhere) is the threat to the economic standing of the 85,000-person city (ranked sixth in overall size of New York State cities) posed by the faltering schools’ impact on local real estate values. The consequences of this reputational effect cannot be overstated.
Any honest Westchester real estate professional will warn of the city’s parlous educational standing (don’t put too much stock in the various ratings granted municipalities and taxing districts by Moody’s and Fitch; the inflation of their “grades” and their consequent decreasing validity are of legend!). So what is to be done?
Well, what we shouldn’t be doing is continuing to leave day-to-day administration of our once-cherished New Rochelle schools to acting/temporary caretakers and general and casual management to an unpaid (yes, unpaid) school board. Yes this is the present case, and it is time something is done about it.
Our society values volunteer service (I am a big fan, and I actively participate in several educational/youth empowerment enterprises myself) and unpaid public service must be saluted. Unfortunately, in a city sure to near 100 thousand in population following completion of current RXR development and the growing responsibility of protecting, transporting and educating the added children the responsibilities exceed the competence of ordinary civic volunteers. The tax revenue foregone following the many tax-abatements, tax holidays, sales tax exemptions and modest revenues generated by rent-paying apartment dwellers generally (as apartment rents cover only a paltry fraction of a tax burden that local residential and commercial property tax payers carry) creates monumental fiscal burdens to the municipality involved, not just the school system.
A tall order, especially for a city that has seen its sales tax revenue flat (when not declining) in the past 15) and without any significant job growth (outside of service, restaurant, automotive, and hospital related endeavors).
By any standard, the presently constituted volunteer panel is structurally and constitutionally unsuited to the task of managing this enormous civic and moral obligation – the ever-challenging and ever-changing task of safeguarding, overseeing and educating our youth – the heralds of our collective future.
A solution presents itself to anyone even minimally familiar with 21st century management methods and business practice. In the financially strapped municipality of New Rochelle, present these complex tasks to a body presently paid serious salaries to do important work,
And where to find such a structure? Why at New Rochelle’s City Hall; just two floors below the under-provisioned, under-talented, under paid, unpaid School Board.
The New Rochelle City Council presently comprised of six regional council members and a figurehead mayor is perfectly situated to confront the problem of a malfunctioning educational bureaucracy. The budget of the council and mayoral staff salaries and related expense totals nearly $900 thousand. Most of their work consists in listening to the presentations of the city manager and various department heads, then seeking direction from leaders of the Democratic party machine and its subsidiary Republican party machine-let, seated in the council auditorium or available for consultation later. Occasionally weeker-willed council Democrat-majority members will seek signals from the “weak mayor” (not my term; but one specified by political scientists for city governance where power is held by a (presumably) professional manager) and then confirmed by the silence of weaker-kneed sitting Republican machine-let minority.
The differences cannot be attributed to the council being better “peopled” than the school board – there is absolutely no evidence for that! It is simply that a city council obligated by a City Charter to govern a city staffed with departmental heads/commissioners (parks, public works, police, fire) performing clearly delegated and diagrammed management directives in pursuit of clearly identified management objectives has a greater internal logic. Whatever the quality of the presently constituted New Rochelle City Council, the body itself possesses a historically-proven and superior structure for carrying out tasks essential to a diverse, growing municipality in the orbit of America’s greatest metropolitan area (with a theoretically combined city-schools budget of some $450 million).