BY DAVID COLBY & TAMARA HARTMAN
Confident and eloquent before a room of teachers, students, and parents gathered for an Educational Forum at St. John’s University, Interim Chancellor Harold Levy told Queens the secret of why a portrait of Thomas Moore hangs behind his desk.
“He was a lawyer, and so am I. He was an educator, and I try to be. I’m told I look a bit like Thomas Moore. And finally, he died for his principles,” Levy paused, then added that he hoped that was not a prediction and the standing-room-only crowd laughed.
As the Tribune went to press, this same gentleman who spoke with humor, enthusiasm, and striking honesty in Queens last week about the state of New York City’s public school system told the Board of Education that he was willing to keep up the challenge. Interim Chancellor Levy is submitting his name for the permanent slot at the Board, and Terri Thomson, Queens’ board member, was excited at the possibilities. She said that in the 90 days since he has been in the position, the Board has already seen what “someone with strong management abilities can do at the helm” and seen bureaucracy cut in his wake.
“He reacts when he sees something wrong, he is more responsive and he fixes things.” Thomson added that the Board has received 80 applications for the chancellor position and will now extend its deadline for applications one week until next Friday, so that Levy – and any other interested candidates – can still apply. Then the interviewing process will begin during May, Thomson said.
LEVY TO QUEENS
During the Carol Gresser 1999-2000 Forum on Issues in Education at the University on April 6, Levy spoke about his goals during his first days, which focused on “changing the things he could do with a signature,” focusing on staff efficiency and raising the level of training and motivation of the teachers, principals and superintendents in the system.
He explained his summer school policy simply. When he was asked how many letters to send out warning of a possible need for a summer school term, he asked “what’s the largest number?” then said “send that.”
And if some students are warned but squeak by without being required to study this summer, well, “These kids have nothing to be proud of. That’s a good thing. They ought to have the feedback.” He added that it is essential for their parents to have the feedback, and that’s why he sent the same notice out four times. “I am a product of the system. I still do my mother’s signature better than she can.”
He spoke of the need to cut the red tape and get down to action within the board. “I wanted to send an e-mail [requesting input into the system] to 1,100 principals in a week. And [the advisors] said to me that’s great Chancellor (Chancellor is a great title, ‘cause no one knows what it means) that is a great idea (they always tell me they are great ideas if I think of them), but . . .”
The “buts” ran from computers not working to schools not equipped to have them plugged into the walls until Levy just insisted. Then it just happened. And now, Levy claims, he has a looseleaf full of 700 e-mailed brilliant ideas he just turns to when he needs something new to achieve in the office.
But the bottom line for the Board, Levy stressed, is more money for education, certifying uncertified teachers, attracting new teachers, and inspiring creativity and competent action at every level of the city board of education.
Then he brought all the issues down to one point: “Student performance. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
Thirty years ago, an earnest, civic-minded high school senior found himself caught in the crossfire between his rebellious classmates and a school administration that was trying to calm the student body in the wake of the 1960s.
Ultimately, this quiet, studious Bronx High School of Science senior was elected president of the school government, despite the fact that others in his class were flashier and more popular.
“Why did we vote for Harold? Well, Harold had a quiet, straightforward dignity and a direct, honest and reasonable approach to the issues that concerned us as students,” recalled fellow Bronx Science classmate David Sherman.
“While others yelled, he reasoned. While others demanded, he reached compromises with the school administration. In the end, Harold got more done, did it faster and did it better than, I believe, anyone else could have.”
The recollections of former classmates and colleagues paint a picture of a student and leader who kept his cool during difficult times. “We went to P.S. 52 [junior high] together,” said Ilene Guralnick, who has known Levy since elementary school. “Harold participated in student government even then. I remember that in sixth grade Harold was the schoolyard monitor. I still have that image of Harold standing in the middle of the schoolyard blowing that whistle of his.”
Levy grew up in a heterogeneous section of Washington Heights. The neighborhood was working class, yet there were those who elevated themselves to an upper middle class social strata. “They were the models of who we wanted to be, ” said Guralnick, “Harold was always committed to reaching that goal through public schooling and civic activities.”
Bill Milberg, another classmate of Levy’s, recalled that era: “Bronx Science was at the center of the student activist movement. Many of the students in the school were involved in political movements, protesting everything from the Vietnam War to school dress codes. There were frequent student strikes and walkouts to join the various marches and protests around New York.”
Michael Masucci, a member of Levy’s Class of ‘70, said the collective high school experience came during a time of cultural changes for young people. “Harold Levy had to juggle these changes with the traditional needs of education and social stability.”
Levy’s friend and rabble-rousing classmate, Arthur Schwartz, remembered that “the strikes resulted in bringing about change through the student government. Harold thrust himself into the fray. What was most important to Harold was that the government worked, that all points of view were heard and that free speech and students’ rights were protected.”
CORNELL TO THE CORE
For Levy, higher education meant undergraduate studies, and law school at Cornell University. “Harold is a Cornellian to the core,” said Regents Chancellor Carl Haden. Levy enrolled in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations and he wrote his college thesis on collective bargaining in higher education, an area that should help him in the coming months as tense salary negotiations with the United Federation of Teachers commences.
Professor Milton Konvitz, Levy’s mentor at Cornell said, “He would come to my office more than anybody else, at least once a week. We would discuss philosophy, religion, ethics and literature. He asked questions that were revealing, genuine, not superficial. They provoked exploration. He still writes letters to me, not just about what he’s doing, but much more about ideas.”
THE CORPORATE SPIN
Levy flourished in the corporate world once his student days were behind him. He was instrumental in sealing the mega-merger between Salomon Brothers and Travelers Group. As director of global compliance at Citigroup, Levy has been responsible for ensuring that the company obeys complex regulations in 140 countries around the world.
All the while, Levy’s interests never strayed far from education. He promoted the “Principal for a Day” concept that urged leaders in business to take a day off to go to a public schools to familiarize themselves with today’s education system. “Harold never drew boundaries between personal, corporate, and education matters,” said Michael Zisser, executive director of University Settlement, a non-profit multi-service educational institution. “He crossed over into other fields, but education was always a part of him, part of the whole.”
Levy belonged to the board of University Settlement for 10 years, six of them as chairman. His “Breakaway” program enabled thousands of kids to attend summer camps that placed as much emphasis on education as it did recreation.
THE CHANCELLOR’S CALL
In 1994, the departing School Chancellor Ramon Cortines appointed Harold Levy to head a commission mandated to examine the infrastructure of New York’s public school buildings. In June of 1995, The Commission on School Facilities and Maintenance Reform completed its investigation. Dubbed “The Levy Report,” the result was a scathing indictment of the horrendous and dangerous conditions of New York’s public schools.
The commission recommended sweeping changes. The cost would run in the billions. Yet, The Levy Report so persuasively argued and illustrated the plight of school facilities, that substantial funding was appropriated to repair the damage and build anew.
A seat on The New York State Board of Regents would be added to Harold Levy’s education portfolio in 1997.
As the State aid chairman, Levy decoded the formula of the 655 Report, an almost impossibly complex set of data about public schooling. A proposal for an increase in financial aid for education of $885 million — a figure that was expected to be rejected by the frugal State legislators — passed because of the tightly-crafted proposal designed by Levy. In fact, the final amount was $29 million higher than originally proposed, with $914 million in much-needed State aid funneled to city schools.
Now if Levy, a collector of rare and antique pens, will be allowed to write the sequel to his interim stint as chancellor, he may get a chance to follow the advice that he has given to public school students: “do not be limited, be passionate and lavish your talent.”