NYC Politics Leaves Scars

NYC Politics Leaves Scars

You want to talk about stress? Picture this. You are sitting in the first row of the cavernous hail in Brooklyn where the New York City Board of Education meets.

At your feet lies a hoard of news media types, cameras in hand, clicking away as if they need to use up all the cheap film in their expensive cameras. The hot television lights are reminiscent of those in your favorite tanning salon. Reporters feverishly scrawl notes on their pads, and you wonder what facial expression or body language they are reading and recording for their stories. The house is packed, standing room only.

The big hullabaloo is the culmination of my two-week roller coaster ride.


Finalist Status

It all started with a phone call from a consultant wanting to know if I was interested in becoming the chancellor of the New York City public school system. Two years earlier I had been a finalist for the same position and my name had become indelibly etched in the computer banks for future reference. New York City chancellors tend to have short tenures and therefore are urged not to buy green bananas.

A list of more than 70 candidates quickly was pared down to 30, then to 15. I read in the newspapers that I had survived the cut and I was part of the final 10. In chancellor searches you learn about your status by reading the dailies.

I was in the company of several candidates who also had been part of the final 10 several years earlier. One of the tabloids handicapped the field and gave me the second best odds to win the job. I did not know whether to snort or smile.

The mayor of New York City, like many of his Republican counterparts in city halls and governors’ mansions around the country, wanted control of the school system’s finances. Because of his election campaign promise to reduce crime, he also wanted control of the schools’ security operation. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, early on in the search process, had decided he wanted to hand-pick the next chancellor of the school system.

The mayor quickly announced his choice for the job. I was not that person. However, the person selected by the mayor came under severe attack by the press, which raised some serious allegations about his character and past dealings. Within several days, that individual withdrew his name from contention.

By this time, Bud Spillane, the superintendent from Fairfax County, Va., and I had survived a rigorous screening process that included one of the most in-depth background checks I have ever endured. We also had to subject ourselves to a comprehensive physical examination and a live two-hour television debate. That was followed by a two-hour grilling by reporters and editors at The New York Times, interviews with parent groups, community leaders, and assorted politicians. The last hurdle was a final interview with the school board.

Mounting Strain

Throughout this process I had been plagued by an old back injury. Sitting through countless interviews and walking up and down the streets of New York City were not doing my herniated discs much good. Adding to the pressure were the rigors of my current job as district superintendent in western Suffolk County.

In addition, I recently had been given responsibility by the state board of education for the first-ever intervention by the state education department in a failing school district. Expectations were high and everyone was looking for immediate changes and a miraculous turnaround for that school system.

Being a school superintendent is like being an athlete. Peak performance requires both physical and mental stamina.

Twelve-hour workdays are the rule, and we often are expected to be at our best during board of education meetings, after we already have put in a full day. Add to the physical demands the mental and emotional strain that accompanies the job and you have the ingredients for a lack of wellness.

Most superintendents fail to recognize the stress they work under. Such physical manifestations as headaches, back pain, stomach problems, and high blood pressure frequently are ignored. Also overlooked is the impact on personal and family life. Divorce among superintendents runs at a fairly high rate.

The short tenure of the superintendency–a national average of six years on the job and even less for urban superintendencies–makes for a great deal of mobility, another stress inducer. Alcoholism and substance abuse are addictions seldom discussed among superintendents, but I know of colleagues who have succumbed to these problems, often after losing jobs or splitting from their spouses.

Unfortunately, any thought of superintendents participating in workshops designed to train them to be physically fit and mentally tough is met with considerable skepticism. Superintendents themselves do not want to admit they need such help. While it is acceptable to attend a workshop on curriculum or administrative strategies, admitting to a need for stress reduction or conflict management training is akin to publicly flaunting a personal weakness. The superintendent must forever be the paragon of strength. Any show of weakness is an open invitation for our detractors to attack our Achilles heel.

The fact is that it is often the pressure of the job, and the inability of the superintendent to effectively cope with that pressure, that proves fatal. When was the last time you heard of a superintendent being fired for his or her lack of knowledge in curriculum and instruction? Sadly, the demise of most superintendents centers around political and governance issues and the superintendent’s inability to effectively manage conflict.

The majority of superintendents who retire as soon as they reach the qualifying age do so not because they feel unprepared to deal with the educational changes, but because they no longer want to deal with the political hassle and the pressures of the job.

We can improve the qualities of our lives and contribute significantly to our professional success by exercising regularly, being mindful of our weight and what we eat, and becoming proficient in stress reduction and relaxation techniques.

Survival Training

As stressful as my New York City experience may have been, I enjoyed every minute of it. I was physically and mentally ready for the job. I relished all the interviews with the media. I saw them as opportunities to advertise myself to the community I thought I would be serving. I looked forward to every interview with the board as another chance to express my views and gain their confidence.

I practiced my deep breathing techniques to help me relax before every major encounter with the press. I took advantage of “down time” to listen to relaxing music and allow my batteries to recharge. I continued my exercise and stretching program to minimize my back pain and maintain a high energy level.

My last meeting with the board clinched the deal. As I was driving home from the interview, I heard on the radio that the board had decided to offer me the job. Why should I have been the first to know?

On the evening that I sat before the New York City Board of Education awaiting their ratification vote on my contract, I was ready. I realized the mayor had done everything in his power to overturn the board’s decision the previous day to offer me a contract. That morning my picture had appeared on the front page of every major newspaper in the metropolitan area as the new chancellor.

However, a board member who had supported my candidacy the night before had succumbed to political arm twisting and had agreed to change his vote. I was about to be done in. My wife and son sat with me, ready for the inevitable. There would be no celebration in the Domenech household that evening.

I fell victim to New York City politics. I was chancellor for a day. But I was not cowed by the experience. I would not agree to the mayor’s intrusion into an area that was clearly the province of the chancellor and the board of education. The welfare of children is much too important an issue for it to become political fodder. There is no room for compromise in this regard.

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