Are Mayors Threatening to Take Control of Your Schools?

By Susan Black

Memphis City Schools, the nation’s 21st largest school system, needs “radical change,” said former city councilman John Vergos. In a June 2007 editorial in the Memphis Flyer, he called on Tennessee’s Gov. Phil Bredesen to exert his legal authority to take control of the district from the elected school board.

Vergos said school officials have allowed the 119,000-student district’s annual budget to reach $918 million, nearly twice the city’s $539 million operating budget. Officials, he contended, were “fiscally irresponsible” when they authorized a $5 million performing arts center and a $20 million child nutritional center.

In October 2007, the Rochester Business Alliance in Rochester, N.Y., asked first-term Mayor Robert Duffy to take the helm of the city schools. Sandra Parker, RBA’s president and CEO, said the mayor would impose fiscal restraint on the district’s $582 million budget and hold the district accountable for the city’s $119 million annual contribution to the schools. Rochester has the highest poverty rate of New York State’s five largest school districts -- 88 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch -- and the state’s lowest graduation rate.

The threat of mayoral and state takeovers, whether for academic or financial purposes, is real. Today, takeovers are permitted by statute in about half the states, and they’re allowed by some city charters. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act also grants states the power to take over failing schools, although that provision has yet to be enforced.

Under NCLB, schools that continuously fail to make adequate yearly progress for four years -- despite interventions such as technical assistance and supplemental education services -- may be ordered to reorganize, replace staff, and adopt a new curriculum. Schools that continuously fail for five years may be put under state control.

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