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NY Regents look at expanding school takeovers

A New York State audit of the school

A New York State audit of the school district says the budget deficit is worse than expected even after years of state control of the school district. Students leave Roosevelt High School at the end of the school day. Photo Credit: David L. Pokress

State education officials are seeking expanded powers to change managements of failing public schools without direct state takeovers - an initiative that appears certain to include Roosevelt High School and possibly other Long Island schools.

Monday, the state's Board of Regents is to review a plan by the new education commissioner, David Steiner, and his aides that would allow the commissioner to identify "persistently lowest-achieving schools" and then order districts to turn over management of those schools to outside agencies. Managers could include charter-school firms, universities or other independent operators.

Much of the plan would require approval by state lawmakers, who have shown a past reluctance to dilute powers of locally elected school boards. But education officials say the plan could help the state win a share of $4.3 billion in federal Race to the Top incentive grants.

The plan, posted on the state Education Department's Web site, indicates that 27 schools statewide would be tagged lowest achievers initially, though that number could be expanded to 50.

No specific schools are named, but Roosevelt High appears certain to be included, as it is part of a district already run by the state and because achievement there remains low.

Roger Tilles, the Island's representative on the Regents board, acknowledged in a phone interview late Friday that the 800-student high school would be targeted under the plan.

"There has to be an intervention at the high school, because the rest of the district is functioning quite well," said Tilles, who lives in Great Neck. "They are making good efforts there, but when something isn't working, you have to try something else."

Only 52 percent of the school's students met state standards on English exams, and only 43 percent met standards in math, according to achievement figures for the 2007-08 school year, the latest posted. That was down from 60 percent and 52 percent, respectively, for the prior year.

Robert Summerville, a Roosevelt school board member, voiced skepticism about the commissioner's proposal in a phone interview Friday. Summerville and another board member, Frank Scott, have repeatedly criticized the district's state-appointed administration, contending it lacks clear direction.

"They are asking for authority to take over the schools without a plan to improve the quality," Summerville said. "No one has shown us a plan anywhere."

Current law gives the education commissioner authority to shut down schools that are chronically underachieving - a power often invoked in urban areas to force reorganization of schools under new principals or to transfer students to other buildings. Shutdowns are not practical, however, in small suburban systems such as Roosevelt that have single high schools.

In 2002, the state threw out Roosevelt's former school board and took over direct operation of the district to try to straighten out tangled finances and boost test scores. Since then, however, the district ran up a projected $12.3-million budget deficit that had to be paid off by Albany, dampening the state's enthusiasm for further takeovers.

Roosevelt's takeover is due to end in June 2011, though the commissioner is authorized to extend control an extra two years.

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