Saturday, March 07, 2009

Changes at the Board of Regents; Bennett Relinquishing Chancellorship

Regent Robert M. Bennett from western New York (Tonawanda) will soon be stepping down as Chancellor, but will continue to serve on the state Board of Regents, including seeking another 5-year term starting in 2010, as reported by the Buffalo News (Mar. 6).

Regent Arnold Gardner, also from western New York (Buffalo), is stepping down from the board after finishing his second 5-year term this month.

Both men have been dedicated, volunteer public servants for many years, and true gentlemen. Bennett has served on the Regents since 1995 and Chancellor since 2002. Gardner has been a Regent since 1999 and also served on the State University of New York board of trustees in the 1990s.

The state Board of Regents is the policymaking board for all aspects of education: public, private, higher and lower, as well as the professions; hence, the formal name of the entity they oversee is entitled the "University of the State of New York." Membership on the 16-person board is by appointment of the state legislature; specifically, both houses meeting in joint session vote a member from each of the 12 judicial districts in the state, along with four at-large, statewide members.

The largest group of legislators are the Assembly Democrats, numbering 109 of the 212 combined membership. As a result, they effectively select the Regents.

Though the Regents are selected by the same group of legislators, there is still quite a bit of diversity on issues among them which reflect the regional backgrounds and various professional experiences, for example.

On charter schools, this divergence is common. Probably the best example of disagreement on the Regents board is between these western New York neighbors, Chancellor Bennett and Regent Gardner. The Chancellor has been the strongest, most consistent supporter of charter schools on the board since the adoption of the law in 1998. By contrast, Regent Gardner has been one of the board's most vocal opponents of charter schools.

In my observation, Bennett appears to embrace diverse means of providing public education, especially in places like Buffalo where the school district has been ineffective for years. Gardner believes the school district is the primary, if not exclusive mechanism for providing public education, and charter schools should not exist apart from the district's blessing. Thus, Gardner has supported Westminster Community Charter School and Enterprise Charter School, both of which were approved first by the Buffalo Board of Education.

One example of their disagreement on charters occured at the Regents meeting in December 2005 when the Elmwood Village Charter School proposal was on the agenda. Gardner spoke against approving the school while Bennett spoke in favor. It was a riveting discussion, free of acrimony, yet with contrasting education visions on full public display.

The Regents tend to vote on a regional issues -- in this case, a Buffalo charter school -- by deferring to the wishes of the Regent from the area. Problem was that both men were from the same area and disagreed. Happily, from a charter standpoint, Elmwood Village was approved and is today one of the highest performing public schools in Buffalo.

One veteran reporter I spoke with afterward was hugely impressed by the discussion, which rarely occurs in any Albany governmental setting where public meetings can be forever tedious. Not that December day.

Best wishes, and thanks to both men for their service.

-Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.