It’s become a rite of passage for New York City schools chancellors: Rudy Crew has become the fourth chancellor to suspend the school board in the Bronx’s Community School District 9 over allegations of corruption; he also suspended the board in nearby District 7, where a former assistant principal, to take just one example, said a board member asked her to pay him $18,000 for a principalship. Too many of the city’s 32 local school boards—which each control as many as 500 jobs ranging from principals to crossing guards and budgets up to $140 million—have become fiefdoms for patronage and corruption, where learning is at best an afterthought. (See “Who Really Runs the Schools?” City Journal, Winter 1995.)
But the system’s efforts to combat corruption haven’t been very effective. Board members don’t take the threat of investigation or suspension seriously. Little wonder: District 9, for instance, has been under investigation by one agency or another almost continuously since 1974, and suspended officials have routinely returned. “Even if the chancellor rules, you can go right to the court and get a restraining order,” observed a District 27 board member when he learned that he was a target of an anti-corruption probe.
Criminal prosecution isn't much of a deterrent, either. Veterans know that even if they’re guilty, punishment will be light. The same District 27 board member, who eventually pled guilty to extortion, didn’t spend a day behind bars. Even more appalling, convicted board members can run for reelection after three years—even if their crimes involved their board duties.
Corruption is an ever-present danger in a system that puts politics before learning. With turnout in school board elections averaging 7 percent, it doesn’t take many votes to get elected, especially for a patronage boss. One recently suspended District 12 board member was reelected with only 238 votes. The State Assembly's school reform bill proposes abolishing local school boards. It’s long past time to take this sensible step.