Originally Published 2011
Dear Mr. Bloomberg,
My name is Bernard Gassaway, proud father of 16-year-old Atiya Lilly-Gassaway. I am a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, and my dissertation topic is “Principal as Community Leader.” I believe that principals must serve as de facto community leaders if they are to faithfully serve their children. When I agreed to serve as principal of Boys and Girls High School, I was clear about the challenges. I knew that I would likely face many battles with children, teachers, parents, and community stakeholders. My job, like yours, is complicated. I can relate to you when you strongly believe in a position, regardless of the opposition.
The purpose of my letter is to highlight some things you may want to consider as your tenure as mayor comes to a close, particularly in respect to the New York City Department of Education and your legacy as the education mayor. I beg your indulgence as I share some of my thoughts about our system of education and the role you may be able to play in creating sustainable change.
Mr. Bloomberg, it is not too late. You can build political capital and respect by saying, “I was wrong to select Cathie Black as chancellor without community input.” Many see that selection as more of an exercise of political muscle than political maturity. No one, at this point in your mayoralty, should question your strength. You have crushed all of your critics, rendering most impotent. They may call you arrogant and stubborn. So what! You still have the final word. Some people may refer to you as being “gangster.” In some circles, this is an expression of respect. As a sign of self-respect, I recommend, again, that you demonstrate contrition and admit your error in the way you handled the chancellor selection.
Mr. Bloomberg, I agree with your espoused position that every child should have a highly effective teacher. To this end, I will fight with you. I may agree with other policies that you have implemented. However, I strongly disagree with your tinkering with your democracy. When you fire anyone who votes against your position (as you did with your battle for the elimination of social promotion), you create fear and paralysis. Your approach does not allow for evidence or reason to prevail. You have closed some schools in the face of convincing opposition. As I watched the school closing hearings, I often wondered why members of the public participated. Didn’t they know that you had decided to close the schools months before the actual hearing? Didn’t they know the actual hearings were merely perfunctory? All of the screaming and gesticulations were wasted, though valiant acts. At the end of the day, I feel badly for the children. The closing of their schools, without true due process, may have tainted any understanding of democracy that they learned in school.
Mr. Bloomberg, it is not too late for you to make a few changes in your policies and practices to become the true education mayor. Ultimately, you want to build a sustainable school system. Some of the good that you have done may dissipate as soon as you leave office. This is what happens to many schools once “savior principals” leave. All that they have worked to establish is undone by their successors. Why? They did not understand the principles of sustainable leadership. If you find the time, read “Seven Principles of Sustainable Leadership” by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink.
Mr. Bloomberg, I am not interested in joining the chorus of folks who scream and shout in opposition to your policies and practices, specifically your pledge to open an unprecedented number of charter schools or your failure to faithfully engage the public in meaningful policy discussions. Although some agree with some of your actions vis-à-vis education, many, including me, do not agree with your Machiavellian approach: The end does not always justify the means. I would recommend that you earnestly engage some of our preeminent scholars on school reform in ongoing analysis of our school system. The time is right for such analysis. I would also recommend that you engage community stakeholders in unprecedented ways. Invite the communities to establish independent think tanks to discuss and recommend policies and practices. Your current leadership approach absolves the community of its inherent obligation to educate its children. No school is an island. No community is an island. All are inextricably connected in one way or another. Since people are afraid of you, they sit back and silently criticize your policies and practices while failing to take meaningful actions of their own.
Mr. Bloomberg, it is not too late to establish a legacy as the education mayor if you transform your approach and let the democratic process prevail. Unfortunately, your current legacy may reveal that you used your political might to muffle democracy by dismissing the very pillars that support our society. You should not lead as if your followers are peons or minions. It is true that many folks are afraid of you. They fear your wrath and fury. They witness what you do to those who disagree with you. History may reveal that you were not unlike dictators who ruled with fear and an iron fist. Mr. Bloomberg, embrace democracy over dictatorship. It is not too late to change your ways.
Mr. Bloomberg, when we look at great leaders of the past, all have undergone some form of personal transformation. Demonstrate a willingness to accept sound advice. Use the remainder of your time in office to allow independent researchers to study the impact of your policies and practices. On the one hand, place a moratorium on school closings, particularly on schools that have rich traditions in their communities. On the other, continue to pursue policies that would allow principals to immediately remove ineffective staff from schools, with swift and deliberate due process.
You may silence your critics by inviting them to propose better solutions than the ones that you currently dictate. By doing so, you may help to establish sustainable change that may last far beyond your tenure as mayor.
Let your legacy be that you began the real revolution in education. You fought for the right of every child in New York City to have a highly effective teacher in his or her classroom. It is not too late.