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Borough’s six school boards join forces

In 1996 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the state Legislature succeeded in stripping the city's 32 community school boards of most of their responsibilities, returning power to the central administration of a school system with more than 1 million students. Now the six school boards in Queens have banded together in a move toward solidarity.

The newly formed Queens Council of Community School Boards "has been organized for the purpose of improving the quality of education for the students of Queens County," Chairwoman Sharon Maurer of School Board 26 said last week in a press release.

The group has been meeting once a month since August at different sites around the borough, Maurer said, and has begun establishing bylaws and a committee structure.

The council is the only boroughwide forum of school boards currently active in the city. The new group includes School Board 24 in Glendale, School Board 25 in Flushing, School Board 26 in Bayside, School Board 27 in Ozone Park, School Board 28 in Forest Hills and School Board 29 in Rosedale.

State Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Bayside), former Board of Education president and teacher Carol Gresser, the state School Board Association and Jill Levy, president of the principals' union, praised the formation of the Queens Council as a positive way for the boards to share ideas, problems and solutions.

Gresser, a candidate for Queens borough president in 2001, said "anytime people join together they strengthen themselves and their positions."

Weprin said "it's always a good idea to have communication among the school boards."

Maurer, president of School Board 26, was voted chairwoman of the new council on Nov. 20, along with Nat Washington, president of SB 29, who was elected vice chairman, and Louise Emanuel president of SB 24, who was named secretary. The new group was slated to meet twice a year, or as issues arise, Maurer said, and can only take a stance on an issue if the position is arrived at unanimously.

Community school boards were created when the city educational system decentralized in 1969, giving power and authority to local nine-member boards elected by the parents throughout the five boroughs. In the last several years, voter turnout at school board elections has hit record lows.

The 1996 New York City Public School Governance Law returned a measure of power to the city schools chancellor, eliminating several major responsibilities of the local boards, such as the ability to hire and fire school employees, including principals. The law gives the chancellor the power to approve superintendent candidates recommended by school boards and requires board members to attend training to maintain their positions.

"As school board members we are the only duly elected officials responsible for educational policies, an integral part of our local communities and a critical segment of the checks and balances inherent in decentralization," Maurer said in her statement.

School District 26 covers parts of northeast Queens and has been the highest scoring district in both reading and math in the city for many years.

School District 29, which covers parts of southeast Queens and shares its northern border with District 26, has seen its share of trouble in the last two years, including the suspension of its school board last year by Chancellor Harold Levy and the indictment of former Superintendent Celestine Miller on charges of bribery and conspiracy.

Nat Washington, president of SB 29, said the new council was a way to "better help our community and our city as a whole.

"Together we can make a more effective voice," he said. Community school boards are "the first stop in the whole gambit," he said.

A spokeswoman for the New York State School Board Association said there were a number of local school board groups throughout the state, but none right now in the city other than the Queens group.

"They may feel it's a good thing to share local concerns," spokeswoman Barbara Bradley said, "to share the ideas and problems they have in common."

Gresser, a professor at St. John's University, described community school board members as "grassroots people."

"I think we need to hear from the people who are in constant touch with the schools," she said. "You're strengthening education more than you're strengthening the boards."

Weprin, a longtime supporter of School Board 26, said the new council had an opportunity to tackle educational issues unique to Queens, such as overcrowded classrooms.

"I'm a firm believer in the community school boards' ability to be the eyes and ears of the local schools," he said.

Jill Levy, president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators and a former District 26 employee, described the council as "an exciting idea."

"At CSA we are big believers in collaboration and bringing people together to solve problems and identify problems," she said. "Any group with children's interests at heart helps us to do our jobs."

Maurer, who has been on SB 26 for more than 10 years, said the council "is a thing whose time has come.

"We're really excited about it," she said. "There are things going on in other districts that sound marvelous - let's share."

Washington said "what works in District 26, maybe these programs can be developed in District 29."

Because the new Queens Council of Community School Boards will require the approval of all six boards before it speaks out on an issue, Maurer said positions taken by the council would be especially significant.

"It will have the power of six boards behind it," she said.

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