New York Times
Colman Genn Is Dead at 68; Exposed School Corruption
Colman Genn, a career educator who exposed corruption in New York City schools by secretly recording conversations about political and ethnic considerations in filling jobs, died on Thursday night at
The cause was respiratory failure, said his son, David.
Mr. Genn was the superintendent of Community School Board 27 in southeastern Queens when, in the fall of 1989, he became the star witness in hearings to investigate allegations that elected school board members had awarded dozens of unnecessary jobs to friends and political supporters at a cost of more than $1 million a year.
Mr. Genn became celebrated as the Serpico of the public school system after volunteering to wear a recording device and tape hours of conversations over a period of eight months in his office, at board meetings, in cars and restaurants and on the phone for the Joint Commission on Integrity in the Public Schools, informally known as the Gill Commission, appointed by Mayor Edward I. Koch in 1988.
''I'm a political leader; that's why I'm here,'' James C. Sullivan, a member of the community school board and former Republican district leader, was heard telling Mr. Genn on one such recording. At another point, discussing jobs ranging from assistant principal to school aide, Mr. Sullivan complained that Mr. Genn's predecessor had ''hired out of the synagogue,'' to the detriment of Irish-Americans, and instructed that any black person hired had to be ''pliable,'' and not ''a Mau-Mau.''
The city's 32 community school boards grew out of a 1969 state law aimed at giving community leaders and parents, especially in minority neighborhoods, a voice in the running of public schools. The conversations recorded by Mr. Genn, who became the highest-ranking official willing to discuss corruption publicly, led gradually to state legislation recentralizing the school system over the last few years.
In January 1991, Mr. Genn, then 56, retired from his superintendent's job with two and a half years remaining in his contract. He said he was smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day, his asthma had worsened, his weight was fluctuating and he was under police guard for fear of retribution.
''I'm tense and worried that I've made a lot of enemies, that people whose toes have been stepped on will come at me in one way or another,'' he said at the time.
He said he found comfort in riding his motorcycle on the beach.
He found a sanctuary of sorts with a friend and former colleague, Seymour Fliegel, who had helped create small, experimental public schools in
Mr. Genn was born on Dec. 11, 1935, in the
He earned a bachelor's degree in health and physical education from
Mr. Genn became the superintendent of District 27 in July 1987, and realized from his first months on the job that something was amiss, as board members inquired about hiring and promoting friends and cronies.
Just two weeks before Mr. Genn died, he traveled to
In addition to his son, David, of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., Mr. Genn is survived by his wife, Brenda, of Hewlett; a daughter, Shari Shapiro of Lawrence; three brothers, Reuven, of Israel; Mordechai, of Mount Vernon, N.Y.; and Manny, of Tenafly, N.J.; and four grandchildren.
SCHOOLS AND POLITICS: CHANNELS OF POWER - A SPECIAL REPORT: New York Schools and Patronage: Experience Teaches Hard Lessons
Two decades after the New York City school system was decentralized to encourage local participation, many school boards are allied with neighborhood political clubs and exploited by politicians seeking power and patronage.
Many teachers and administrators say their colleagues, eager to get ahead, are compelled to join the clubs and give their time and money to election campaigns because politicians' allies on the school boards have the power to grant promotions.
And despite recent efforts in Albany to build barriers between education and politics, a seat on a local school board is often seen as a stepping stone for budding politicians.
In dozens of interviews, politicians, school board members and educators agreed that they are creatures, and sometimes victims, of the elective system created by decentralization.
The lessons that New York is learning about this perilous mixture of education and politics are of national significance because cities like Chicago and Miami have begun experimenting with various forms of decentralized schooling.
Decentralization gave control over the hiring of administrators in the city's elementary and junior high schools to 32 local school boards. It was prompted by concerns in the 1960's that the central adminstrative staff was not responsive enough to teachers, students and parents.
Self-Interest and Reluctance
There is wide agreement that the local boards have failed the city's 940,000 schoolchildren. More than a third of these bodies have been shaken by allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Seven board members have been indicted in roughly a year. But the boards have become so enmeshed in the city's political web that many educators say they are skeptical that the 83 state legislators who represent parts of New York City can make dispassionate decisions about reform.
''Political self-interest,'' said Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the Board of Education, has made many legislators ''reluctant to deal with the issue.''
The injection of politics into running the schools, he added, ''shifts the focus away from kids to the political agenda of individual politicians and there are times that decisions, rather than being made on merit, are made on political connections.'' Other critics note that teachers who refuse to get involved in politics are passed over for promotions and can grow demoralized.
Dr. Fred Goldberg, superintendent of District 10 in the northwest Bronx, said that among teachers and administrators, ''there was a perception that it was an asset to be a member of a political group to enhance the probability of being considered'' for promotion.
Political affiliation has become so important in advancing an educational career that in certain parts of the city, teachers and school administrators are as common as lawyers at meetings of local political clubs. Teachers and administrators are considered intelligent campaigners who have afternoons and summers off to do political work.
Voters decide who the nine members of a school board will be; political clubs may field or back candidates. But because turnout is low, the number of votes needed to win is sometimes no more than several hundred. So the influence of political clubs on the contests can be significant.
During the mid-1980's, the board of District 10 was divided between factions connected to Stanley Simon, then the Bronx borough president, and G. Oliver Koppell, a Democrat State Assemblyman from the Bronx.
At least eight people appointed assistant principals in District 10 were affiliated with one of two political clubs. A community newspaper, The Riverdale Press, found that 25 of the 48 principals and assistant principals who were appointed between 1982 and 1986 were affiliated with political clubs or were relatives of politicians.
In almost every case, the administrators were regarded as highly qualified. But, district officials say, the administrators believed they needed to ''buy insurance'' for their promotions through political club support.
In an interview, Mr. Koppell said he had been compelled, as a matter of political survival, to ''support a few people for assistant principals and principals.''
''The whole school establishment was being used to try and defeat me,'' he said. ''There were people on the streets campaigning against me. They carried petitions. They were standing on street corners handing out fliers at polls urging people to vote on primary days. Many of these were teachers and assistant principals.
'' How It Works 'How You Build Loyal Troops'
The widespread impact of politics on the school system has been documented by a survey of school personnel conducted by the Gill Commission, headed by James F. Gill, a lawyer. The commission was appointed by Mayor Edward I. Koch to investigate school board corruption. In what commission officials believe are understated results, 41 percent of the 1,099 respondents said that political affiliation is a factor in the hiring of principals.
A major focus of the commission was District 27 in southwest Queens. At the commission's request, Coleman Genn, the district's superintendent, wore a concealed tape recorder and recorded the school board's treasurer, James C. Sullivan, asking him to hire 11 friends and political supporters to unnecessary jobs as paraprofessionals. This was at a time Mr. Genn was seeking a one-year extension of his contract from the board.
In a recent interview, Mr. Genn asserted that one principal and three assistant principals in his district were active in a local Republican club and had been promoted to their positions through Mr. Sullivan's influence.
''He built an entourage,'' Mr. Genn said of Mr. Sullivan. ''That's how you build loyal troops.'' When Mr. Sullivan ran an election or a fund-raiser for a candidate, Mr. Genn said, ''these people responded. If he had to get signatures on petitions or campaign literature, they responded.''
Mr. Sullivan and Samuel Granirer, the board's vice president, were indicted on Dec. 1 and accused of improperly using their influence to force Mr. Genn to hire their choices. Mr. Sullivan pleaded guilty to mail fraud and coercion. Mr. Granirer pleaded not guilty.
'On My Own Time'
In District 4 in East Harlem, according to a confidential 1988 report by the Board of Education's Inspector General, most of the district's 20 principals and several top-level district officials attended a fund-raising party in 1985 for Robert Rodriguez, then the school board president, who was trying to regain the seat he once held as City Councilman. The report also said Carlos Medina, the district superintendent, had been seen at the Board of Elections helping Mr. Rodriguez fend off challenges to his City Council petitions. The report said that created a conflict of interest because Mr. Rodriguez would be voting on Mr. Medina's contract.
In an interview, Mr. Medina said he admired Mr. Rodriguez for his support of district programs, which have been widely praised for their innovation and, in some schools, notable success. He acknowledged having appeared at the Board of Elections, but said he did so ''on my own time'' because ''as superintendent it was important for me to know who was winning and who would be the people in my district.''
Mr. Medina was discharged as superintendent on Nov. 8 by the District 4 school board after an arbitrator found that he had created an improper ''special projects fund'' from district money, and used it in part to lend $6,788 to subordinates and to contribute small amounts of money to political fund-raisers.
Mr. Rodriguez, 38 years old, argued that principals should be involved in a variety of community activities, including council races.
In District 9, a veteran social studies teacher said that when he applied for a much-coveted summer-school job in 1988, a district official asked him to spend several days helping collect petitions for candidates in local races. The teacher, who agreed to perform those chores, asked not to be identified because he is now seeking a job as an assistant principal.
In District 19 in the East New York and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn, political factionalism stalled the selection of a superintendent and seven principals and assistant principals for several months and delayed the approval of the budget. When Politics Divides A District In Trouble District 10 is the largest in New York City, roughly equivalent to Buffalo in student population. Taking in both the elegant homes of Riverdale and the burned-out tenements south of Fordham Road, it has 36,050 children in 35 schools.
From 1980 to 1986, two successive boards were divided into factions -one connected to the Riverdale Democratic Club, led by Mr. Simon, the Borough President, and the other to the Benjamin Franklin Democratic Club, whose founder was Mr. Koppell.
The Simon loyalists, board members said, were: Jeffrey Litt, who was director of community boards in the Borough President's office; Arnold Kideckel, then executive director of the State Insurance Fund and a close Simon adviser, and Robert Shaw, then a counsel to the city's Transportation Commissioner.
There were four Koppell loyalists at various times. They included James P. Sullivan and Evelyn Karfiol. Mr. Sullivan, who is no relation to James C. Sullivan in District 27, was the brother of Timothy Sullivan, Mr. Koppell's administrative assistant. Mrs. Karfiol is an aide to Mr. Koppell.
Target of 'a Cabal'
The political division was reflected in the choice of school administrators, district officials said. Mr. Kideckel said that he never favored an administrator because ''they came out of Simon's club per se, but if they came out of Simon's club and I may have known them and known their character, that may have been a factor.''
Under the decentralization law, school board members must appoint principals and assistant principals from among candidates recommended by the superintendent. Dr. Goldberg, the superintendent, said that in the early 1980's he was generally able, because of the split in the board and his popularity with independents, to gain support for almost all of his choices. But in 1982, when he refused to recommend as an assistant principal Alexander Castillo, a teacher in District 9 backed by Mr. Litt and Mr. Simon, he suddenly found himself the target of what he called ''a cabal.''
Dr. Goldberg said the Simon faction responded by joining the Koppell faction in closed session and voting to strip him of his powers to hire or transfer personnel, modify the budget or even talk to the press.
''The district could not function,'' said Sandra Lerner, Dr. Goldberg's deputy.
Appealing to Parents
A 1987 report by a Bronx grand jury that inquired into school board politics said the District 10 factions agreed to allow each member to choose one assistant principal.
But Mr. Litt said the factions united because they believed the superintendent was not giving members enough information to make decisions. He has never once, he added, ''been pressured by a political club or its leadership to make an appointment.'' Mrs. Karfiol and Mr. Kideckel were not members of the board at the time.
In response to the district paralysis, Dr. Goldberg, widely considered one of the system's best superintendents, said he was forced ''to consider a strategy that would enable me to run the district for the benefit of the children.'' He continued to recommend people he thought were best qualified to be administrators. He also included candidates whom board members might favor, but he worked to rally parents in support of his choices, and the board members heard from those parents.
''I became more sensitive to the dynamics of the board,'' he said.
Winning Almost All of Them
In almost every case, Mr. Goldberg said, the people he preferred were selected. Still, he added, many teachers and administrators interested in promotions continue to believe membership in a political club could bolster their efforts.
Among those who received appointments as assistant principals in District 10 were four officers or members of the Benjamin Franklin club: Michael Spivak, Emanuele Fontana, Alex Fermanis and Nadia Pagan.
Among those who worked in Mr. Simon's campaign in 1985 or were active in the Riverdale Democratic Club were Barbara Lofthouse, Robert Levy and Candido deJesus, who were named assistant principals; and David Parker, named a principal.
In interviews, Mr. Fermanis, Mrs. Lofthouse and Mrs. Pagan said they joined their clubs not to advance their careers, but because of their interest in community activities. Several agreed, though, that many of their colleagues believed political affiliation was needed for advancement.
Coming to People's Attention
''You had to be more politically involved with certain individuals,'' said Mr. deJesus, now the principal of P.S. 85. ''You wanted to come to people's attention. But I didn't like the climate and decided to get out.''
By the time of the next school board election in 1986, Mr. Simon came under investigation by the United States Attorney's office and, district officials say, he refrained from actively supporting school board candidates. In 1988, he was found guilty of racketeering and conspiracy in the Wedtech scandal and sentenced to five years in prison. The Riverdale club dissolved. Mr. Koppel said that with Mr. Simon's removal he, too, pulled out of school politics.
The Benjamin Franklin Club, which took over the Riverdale club's headquarters at 231st Street near Broadway, decided four years ago not to endorse candidates, but two club members are school board members. They are Richard Sanz Gonzalez and Sandra Ramos-Alamo, who made an unsuccessful bid for the State Assembly last year.
In many cases, the connections between school boards and New York City politicians are direct. Several school board members, for example, work in the offices of city and state legislators. In other cases, the ties are more subtle. Some board members often serve as unofficial proxies for political leaders on school boards, casting the votes that allow supporters to be hired.
Conflicts of Interest
Politicians defend these connections as inevitable, even desirable. It makes sense, they say, that people who are politically minded participate both in school board business and in local government.
In most cases the connections are within the law, but in many cases, they create the potential for significant conflicts of interest.
A law passed last year in Albany has eliminated some of the most obvious conflicts. The law makes it illegal for school board members to serve as political district leaders or to hold other elective office.
But the spirit of the law has proved easy to evade. Brothers and Husbands in Posts
In District 27 in Queens, the district investigated by the Gill Commission, Mr. Sullivan relinquished his Republican district leadership but arranged to have his brother succeed him. And in District 32 in Brooklyn, a Democratic district leader, Elba Roman, gave up her seat on the board but was succeeded by her husband.
The law does not prohibit spouses of political officeholders from serving on school boards. In the spring, Elizabeth Miller, the wife of the Assembly Speaker, Mel Miller, was elected to the board of District 22 in the Flatbush and Flatlands sections of Brooklyn. Campaign finance records show that Mr. Miller's Assembly campaign committee contributed $2,000 to his wife's campaign, and members of Mr. Miller's Assembly staff took off time from work to campaign for her.
Both actions were legal. Mr. Miller, Democrat of Brooklyn, said his wife had no political motive for running, and that he would have no influence over her decisions.
''My wife, this is her life,'' he said. ''She was a teacher in a district. Our two children went through public schools. It doesn't help me; she'll do what she wants.'' 'I Financed Her Campaign'
The law does not prevent politicians' staff members from serving on local school boards, and several do. They include Ernestine Washington, a member of school board 29, who is office director for Assemblywoman Cynthia Jenkins, a Queens Democrat; Maria Irizarry, a member of school board 19, who until recently served as a city liaison to Assemblyman Thomas F. Catapano, Democrat of Brooklyn, and Elinore Mandell, also a member of board 19, who is an administrative assistant to Assemblyman Anthony Genovesi, Democrat of Brooklyn.
Mr. Genovesi said he ''unabashedly'' supported Ms. Mandell's school board candidacy to prevent other politicians like Con gressman Towns from wielding control over the schools within Mr. Genovesi's partly overlapping assembly district.
''She wanted to quit this year,'' said Mr. Genovesi of Ms. Mandell. ''I financed her campaign. It's the only way I know what's going on. It's not a coincidence that she's there. That's why she runs. Ellie is the way I take them on,'' he said, referring to rival politicians. Political Careers School Boards As Stepping Stones By virtue of being elected, school board members are political officials, and it is not surprising that they frequently run for higher office.
Politicians who began their careers as school board members include Assemblyman Al Vann, State Senator Howard E. Babbush, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Assemblyman William F. Boyland. All four are Brooklyn Democrats. Assemblywoman Aurelia Greene, Democrat of the Bronx, is a former member of school board 9, and was indicted earlier this year on felony charges springing from her involvement in the board.
City Council members Sal F. Albanese, Priscilla Wooten and Ruth W. Messinger are also former board members.
At least five former assemblymen and councilmen were once school board members. Three of these, Sam Wright, Israel Ruiz Jr. and Vander Beatty, were later convicted on charges of corruption -Mr. Wright for soliciting a $5,000 payment from a educational materials company, Mr. Ruiz for falsifying a bank loan application and Mr. Beatty for tax evasion.
Politicians who have served on school boards say that, far from being a disservice to the district, the desire for higher office insures that school board members will respond to their constituents' concerns.
''If anything, I see it as a positive sign,'' said State Senator Guy J. Velella, Republican of the Bronx, who was president of School Board 11 in between serving in the State Assembly and the State Senate.
''You don't want to destroy somebody's ambition,'' Mr. Velella added. ''If you do a good job, you'll be qualified for higher office.''