Mayoral control concept surfaces

Adrift for months, the Atlanta school board has been caught in a riptide of dysfunction so strong that it may cost the accreditation of the city public schools system.

Does the solution entail handing over supervision of the system to the city’s mayor, as some in City Hall and even Mayor Kasim Reed have hinted?

The answer, in so many words, is not so fast. While public schools in roughly a dozen major U.S. cities operate under some guise of mayoral control, a number of local leaders as well as national experts said Atlanta would be several steps away from a possible schools takeover. Additionally, this city has been long accustomed to selecting its own boards.

“We’re not there yet,” House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said. Given that the city school system represents the largest percentage of local homeowners’ property tax bills, “On balance, people prefer to vote for their school board member,” Lindsey said.

The idea has advocates, however. In an opening public salvo last week, Peter Aman, the city’s chief operating officer, said Reed had a broad objective to make sure city kids received a quality education. “There are obviously a variety of ways to tackle that. We don’t have primary responsibility for the Atlanta Public Schools ... at the moment,” Aman told some members of the City Council.

The line came in the wake of the city school board’s most recent public shaming. Members voted Monday to accept a report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that put the school system on probation, a sanction based entirely on the board’s ongoing antics. Members have split into factions, publicly bickered and even sued each other since last summer.

They continue to be roiled by an ongoing test cheating scandal. And they haven’t yet fully agreed on how to search for a new leader. Superintendent Beverly Hall is stepping down in June.

Such turmoil often presents a good time to reassess governance of a school system, but that process takes time and may wind up with any conclusion, said Kenneth Wong, who chairs the urban education policy program at Brown University.

The defining example was set by Boston in 1992, when the city became the first major urban district to formally cede power to a mayoral-appointed school committee after several leadership changes and poor student performance. Rising academics and stability followed — one superintendent, Thomas Payzant, stepped down in 2006 after an 11-year tenure — and the idea caught attention.

Cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago followed suit, although the form of mayoral control each practices has varied by city. Some cities provide more checks and balances than others. Others failed altogether to get viable results.

In Chicago, local school councils have a say in hiring and firing principals. Philadelphia invites in national experts every quarter to review progress. Other cities involve independent groups that review and recommend candidates for appointment.

Such a system exists in Boston, where a citizens’ nominating panel vets potential members of the school district’s seven-member governing committee. The panel’s recommendations are then forwarded to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who is empowered to make appointments.

“The most important thing is cohesiveness and accountability [for a school system],” said Wong, who studies mayoral control of schools. “Mayors tend to have a stronger motivation to really look at data to improve policy and practice.” A board like Atlanta’s, with nine members all elected from different areas of the city, may “lose sight of the importance of the districtwide challenges,” Wong said.

It does not always work.

“The flip side is classic Detroit,” said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association.

Detroit voters made great fanfare in 1999 when they adopted mayoral control of city schools, only to reject it five years later because of ongoing dysfunction and poor academics. And while New York City, which started mayoral control of its schools in 2002, is often held up as a positive example, critics late last year decried the lack of public input when Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed former Hearst executive Cathleen P. Black — a non-educator — as chancellor of that city’s school system.

The NSBA regularly opposes school or system takeovers, as well as any attempts to diminish or interfere with local governing boards’ authority. But Bryant said there are ways local governments can partner toward the same goal of improving education. She uses Boston as one example of promoting community engagement with its use of the citizens’ panel. In New Haven, Conn., Bryant said, “the mayor sits on the school board. There are all kinds of ways community engagement and partnerships can trump a takeover.”

Reed, in an interview late last week, said he had no ambition to take over Atlanta Public Schools. However, he also said, “I am going to influence the process. I am the only individual elected to lead the entire city of Atlanta who does not have a stake in the outcome of this. We can do a better job than is being done right now. In instances where you have mayoral involvement, they drive change and reform.”

Those are ambitious words, given everything on his plate. Reed is in his second year as Atlanta’s mayor. With a half-billion dollar annual city budget, thousands of employees, control over the world’s busiest airport and his efforts focused on passing a massive transportation bill that will change Atlanta’s landscape, critics say that Reed is already too busy to try to assume control over another governmental body.

“I wouldn’t want this political discussion to jeopardize accreditation. Now is not the time for the city to cram for the exam on this issue. We will only create distractions,” said City Council member Kwanza Hall, a former member of the school board. “Doing what is political is not what is always right. It still might not solve the problems. It is sexy to talk about a mayoral takeover, but that is a lot of work.”

It is worth noting the city school system, under its current governance structure, has had stable leadership, an attribute normally associated with mayoral control. Superintendent Beverly Hall will step down later this year after more than 11 years at the helm, a term more than double that of the average for urban superintendents. Still, her tenure has critics who denounce her authoritarian style. City Councilman Michael Julian Bond said she had a tin ear for public input or accountability.

The system’s current governance structure, Bond said, did not help to “manage or direct Dr. Hall.” And he said he wants that to change, even if it takes mayoral control to do it.

“Atlanta,” he said, “is past ready for it.”