The Anti-Chancellor: Scott Stringer’s education-board appointee objects to Dennis Walcott, again and again
10:28 am Aug. 3, 2011 | Tweet this article
During a hearing in June, as the city’s Panel for Educational Policy prepared to move on a plan to “co-locate” 22 charter schools in public-school buildings, most of the audience knew what would happen: Parents would yell, teachers would plead and union members would attack the Bloomberg administration. And then, after hours of testimony in the tightly packed auditorium of a Prospect Heights high school, the plan would pass as expected.
The night went according to script, as the P.E.P., the voting and policy board of the Department of Education, quickly approved each motion with few questions from the panel. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott had dealt with hecklers through his opening remarks, and had effectively neutralized questions and boos from the crowd. But as he finished speaking, a voice came from the panel.
“Can I ask the chancellor a question?”
“Yeah, I’m right here,” Walcott said.
The voice belonged to Patrick J. Sullivan, who is an appointee of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer—who is interested in running for mayor in 2013—and is one of five people on the 13-member panel not appointed by Michael Bloomberg.
Sullivan proceeded to suggest that the city was using procedural obstacles to hamper the Community Education Council, a series of parent-advocate groups created as part of Bloomberg’s deal to win mayoral control of schools in 2004.
“I had hoped you would address this as a crisis borne of mismanagement with this process,” Sullivan said, evenly. “I’d like to understand what you would do to rectify it.”
His question prompted the first loud cheers of the night.
This is what Sullivan does. As the most outspoken of the non-mayoral appointees on the city’s education panel, he is sort of the de facto spokesman at these meetings for parents and public-education advocates who have issues with the Bloomberg administration’s reformist education policies, which aggressively favor the creation of new charter schools and greater emphasis on standardized testing of students and teachers. It is his job to attend the panel events, to raise objections to what is happening, and then, to often cast his vote with the losing side.
He is a bureaucratic martyr.
In an interview after the meeting, Sullivan said, “What we’ve done, Borough President Stringer and myself, is try to use the power to raise issues to bring out the parent view, which is often the dissenting view compared to the mayor and the administration’s agenda.
“So we try to hold them accountable. I try to get past and understand what’s really going on. But most of all, I try to represent what parents are telling me what they want for their kids, versus what the mayor wants for their kids. “
Sullivan, a 45-year-old insurance executive who lives on the Upper East Side, is an improbable political warrior. He got involved in education policy five years ago, he said, when his two sons in kindergarten found themselves in a classroom of 28 students. Thinking that was too many, Sullivan joined Class Size Matters, a non-profit organization advocating smaller class-size. He also got involved with the successful fight against a Bloomberg plan to give 20 private schools exclusive access to Randall’s Island. During this time, Sullivan met Scott Stringer, and when the PEP position became vacant in 2007, he applied for it.
Now Sullivan is the panel’s henpecking serial objector. Sometimes, when it comes time for questions from the panel, some members often crane their heads toward him, anticipating his questions.
The administration has come to expect the question too, and, apparently, to resent them.
“Listen, every few months, or every six months over the years, a high-level Bloomberg official will say to me, if you will only fire Patrick Sullivan, dot dot dot,” Scott Stringer told me, of his appointee. “And I always say, that’s just never gonna happen, so get used to it.”
Stringer seems to relish the fuss that his proxy kicks up on a regular basis.
"We have spoken to the Borough President about Mr. Sullivan—but not about his views on policy matters or activism,” said Bloomberg spokesperson Julie Wood, in an email. “Rather, our complaints have been regarding Mr. Sullivan's frequent inappropriate behavior at panel meetings, which has been highly disruptive, and in one instance, rose to the level of a physical altercation with another PEP member. The Borough President agreed that Mr. Sullivan's behavior has been inappropriate but has yet to take any action to address the issue. Other panel members also sometimes disagree with the Mayor's stance on policy issues, but they are able to voice their concerns in an appropriate manner."
(Wood referred to a February incident which Sullivan reportedly pushed panel member Tomás Morales, a Bloomberg appointee. Sullivan told the Daily News that Morales had taunted him and that he had tapped Morales’ back.)
No matter how much friction Sullivan generations at these meetings, he never actually changes the outcomes. He gets to say his piece, though, and he thinks the audiences are ever more firmly on his side.
Sullivan cited polls measuring public opinion of the mayor’s education policies, the most recent of which that said 69 percent of voters with children in public schools disagree with the way Bloomberg is handling those schools.
“I do think the message is getting out to people and I think I have some small role to play in revealing the truth about what’s actually happening with schools,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s point of view on administration policy has not been softened by the mayor’s appointment of Walcott, whose conciliatory style was intended as a dramatic corrective to the short-lived Cathie Black experiment, and whose wont to seek common ground with the teachers union—or at least to maintain a regular dialogue—contrasts sharply with the default combativeness of Black’s predecessor, Joel Klein.
Sullivan, who once criticized Klein for running the school system as his “personal fiefdom,” thinks Walcott is a new face on the same policy.
“Dennis is certainly more competent in representing the administration and making a pretty slick presentation of what the administration is trying to do,” he said. “I don’t think the policy has changed. I think, if anything, he’s actually clamped down on things like transparency. There’s less information. The budget vote we did was the least transparent of four that I’ve done. I think with Cathie Black there was a sense of ‘what kind of gaffe will she say today?’ But at the same time, it seemed like she was honest about tying to understand what was happening and address things. A little bit less calculating.
“Klein was always responsive in terms of, at least saying things back to people, but he was quite dogmatic with his policy. I don’t know, I don’t really think much has changed. All things are the same. The person that’s representing them is somewhat different in style. But there’s no fundamental change.”
Certainly, Sullivan isn’t in much a position to exert anything other than rhetorical pressure on the administration. The mayor’s eight appointees serve at the pleasure of the mayor and are expected to vote in support of the administration’s policies. (After briefly expiring in 2009, mayoral control extends to 2015, at which point the law has to pass again through Albany.)
In 2004 Bloomberg ran into a mutiny of sorts: In a vote to end “social promotion” for third-graders, two Bloomberg appointees and the Staten Island appointee bucked the mayor’s plan and announced their intention vote against it. Shortly before the vote, the three were fired and replaced with more loyal panelists, who passed the resolution 8-5. One of those emergency appointees, Tino Hernandez, is now the panel’s chair. “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much,'' Bloomberg said after the firings. “They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in.''
In other words, the panel is explicitly a rubber-stamp body whose main practical function is give the administration’s management of schools the semblance of being a public, democratic process. This, in turn, seems to be what has created the demand and even expectation that Sullivan will seize the opportunities he’s presented with to air his concerns in public.
“There’s nobody at a PEP meeting that doesn’t look forward to when Patrick takes the microphone,” said Norm Scott, an advocate at anti-charter group Grassroots Education Movement. “He will ask intelligent, strong questions. He will make a point that nobody else will make. In fact, the press will go be there and actually ignore the kind of important points that Patrick will make, punching holes—hole after hole.”
There are typically hours of comments at PEP meetings, but from the floor, it can be hard to tell how hard the panelists are listening, or whether they’re listening at all.
“I think the mayoral appointees, because they know how they’re going to vote, because they’re told what to do, I think they’re very bored,” Sullivan said. “Sitting fairly close to me, for example, you have Joe Chan and Jeffrey Kay. They’re former protégés of [former deputy mayor for economic development and current Bloomberg L.P. president] Dan Doctoroff. They’re really big in the real estate industry. They sit and they chat all night long. I don’t think they listen to anybody. So I think the mayoral appointees are bored.”
Sullivan said that he had once criticized another member for working on his computer during a hearing, which duly led to an argument.
“I told him that if he was going to sit at the meeting and open his laptop and work on his personal e-mail, then I would introduce a resolution to censure him,” he said.
Sullivan said that there’s never much substantive discussion outside the public-comment portion of the hearings, anyway.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of conversation between them because it’s understood, the mayoral appointees, no matter the case or evidence you bring, you cannot change their vote,” he said.
Sullivan often votes alongside Monica Major, who Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. appointed last October.
“We’ve always been fairly close allies,” said Sullivan.
“She’s a strong advocate, she articulates our position very well,” said John DeSio, a spokesman for Diaz. “We’re very happy to have her on our team, so we couldn’t have made a better bet.”
The Queens appointee, Dmytro Fedkowskyj, wrote in an email: “Conversations between the DOE and PEP members take place during panel briefings, in advance of the public meetings, but I can't say for sure if anybody's vote is predetermined. The voting history of PEP members speaks for itself. I can only speak for myself and tell you that I give serious consideration to every proposal before I vote.”
He also noted that, occasionally, the discussions between panel members does have an effect.
“One time I was able to persuade a member to abstain from a vote, which caused a delay in a proposal and it was unable to pass. That never happened before, but the proposal came back 30 days later to pass, but with an agreement that the co-location wouldn't be permanent.”
None of the mayor’s appointees to the panel who were contacted for this piece responded to requests for comment. (Emails to three of the official addresses posted on the PEP website bounced back, though follow-up emails were sent to other addresses found online.)
Sullivan admitted his role as much about inspiration as anything else.
"We have a chair of the panel," Sullivan said, pointing to Hernandez. "Let him conduct the meeting."
"And we have a chancellor of the Department of Education," said Walcott. "And I'm saying to my staff that they have the ability, when they want to, to respond to questions as well."
Minutes earlier, in his opening testimony, Ross had joked about watching Klein sitting behind Rupert Murdoch in Parliamentary hearings the day before.
“I couldn’t help wondering whether Joel would rather be back here in New York with these nice people,” he said.