Frank Macchiarola, Called the ‘Standard’ for a New York Schools Chief, Dies at 71

December 19, 2012 | Staff

By JOSEPH BERGER

December 19, 2012

Frank J. Macchiarola, who was widely regarded as one of the canniest and most effective New York City schools chancellors of the last half-century, died on Tuesday at his home in Downtown Brooklyn. He was 71.

His death was confirmed by a spokesman for St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Dr. Macchiarola, a graduate of the college, was its president from 1996 to 2008. He had been treated for liver cancer.

Dr. Macchiarola (pronounced MAC-kee-ah-row-la), a sanitation worker’s son and a devout product of Roman Catholic schools, was 37 when Mayor Edward I. Koch appointed him to lead New York’s public school system in 1978. He held the post until 1983.

Succeeding Irving Anker, who had retired, Dr. Macchiarola took the job after he helped the city emerge from near-bankruptcy in the mid-1970s as deputy director of the New York State Emergency Financial Control Board, which had been created during the crisis to oversee the city’s finances.

The school system at the time was reeling from budget cutbacks, teacher layoffs and crowded classrooms. The year before, 15,000 teachers, guidance counselors and teachers’ assistants were laid off.

In a demanding job that in some eras seemed to change hands almost every year, Dr. Macchiarola had a tenure that, at five years, was notable for its relative longevity. It was testimony to the unusual amalgam of political, managerial, legal and educational skills he brought to the post, salted with street smarts.

Dr. Macchiarola set about imposing rigorous standards for both students and educators.

He replaced more than 60 of the system’s 110 high school principals, rating their performance poor. He blocked automatic promotions for fourth and seventh graders, requiring them to take remedial summer classes or be held back if they failed to meet certain goals. (Almost 25,000 students were left back in June 1981; in later years, the policy sometimes lapsed and was sometimes revived.)

To address a plague of disrespect in the classroom and occasional violence toward teachers and administrators, he introduced a 307-page required “citizenship” curriculum stretching from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Anybody who says that what we are trying to do is corny doesn’t understand how fragile this democracy is,” Dr. Macchiarola said at the time.

In 1982, reading and math scores exceeded the national average for the first time in more than a decade, and crimes against teachers declined by 22 percent.

“He was the standard for chancellor,” Mr. Koch said in an interview. “He had great courage, extraordinary knowledge, and his administrative abilities effectuated what he wanted to do.”

Dr. Macchiarola, a portly man with thinning hair, impish eyes and a prankster’s smile, was notably outspoken in a job known for inspiring taciturn discretion. Before stepping down, he told an interviewer that the school system “would be better off” if its seven board members — five of whom were chosen by borough presidents — were all appointed by the mayor and served without salary. Today the entire system is under the mayor’s control.

A longtime member of Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club, Dr. Macchiarola had been schooled in both Brooklyn and Albany politics by two virtuosos — Assemblyman Anthony J. Genovesi and Stanley Fink, the Assembly speaker. In 1989, he ran for a top elective office in the city, finishing third in the Democratic primary race for comptroller.

He put his political skills to use in the chancellor’s office. One victory came in 1981, when, to promote racial integration, he ordered the closing of a middle-school annex in Rosedale, Queens. In protest, many white and some black middle-class parents waged a six-week boycott, but the closing was upheld by the federal courts, which said the annex had led to the segregation of Intermediate School 231 in the largely black Laurelton neighborhood next door.

There were also defeats. He left office without having succeeded in preventing cuts in the school budget, an effort that had put him at odds with his benefactor, Mayor Koch. He lost another power struggle when he took on the teachers’ union, the local school boards and what was then the central Board of Education in proposing to move ninth graders out of junior high schools, which the local boards controlled, and put them in high schools, which the chancellor controlled. (Today, city high schools begin at ninth grade, and sixth, seventh and eighth graders attend middle schools.)

Still, he earned the union’s respect. When he decided to step down in 1983 to take over the New York City Partnership, a business and civic group led by David Rockefeller, Albert Shanker, the union’s president, appealed to him not to resign. Dr. Macchiarola was succeeded by Anthony J. Alvarado.

Dr. Macchiarola remained a fixture in city government, serving on panels like the Charter Revision Commission, which in 1989 turned most civic powers over to the mayor and City Council. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg chose him to head another charter commission in 2003.

In the 1990s, he was dean and professor of law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University before closing out his career as president of St. Francis College.

Francis Joseph Macchiarola was born on April 7, 1941. His father, a sanitation worker who had never finished high school, moved his family to Jewish neighborhoods so that his children might be instilled with the value that Jews placed on learning. Young Frank met his wife, the former Mary T. Collins, in kindergarten at Holy Cross School in Flatbush. The couple had three sons, Joseph, Michael and Frank. They and his wife survive him, as do three brothers — Joseph, James and Henry — and seven grandchildren.

After earning his bachelor’s degree at St. Francis, he studied law at Columbia University, where he also earned a Ph.D. in political science. The Macchiarolas moved to the Midwood section of Brooklyn and sent their sons to public schools. Deeply religious, he prayed three times a day and went to retreats at a Trappist monastery.

Dr. Macchiarola started his career teaching law and business at Baruch College in Manhattan, part of the City University of New York. He moved on to become an assistant vice president for academic affairs at Columbia and then a vice president for institutional advancement at CUNY. He began learning about governing public schools as an elected member and chairman of Community School Board 22 in the Sheepshead Bay, Flatbush and Mill Basin sections of Brooklyn.

When the city’s finances nearly melted down in 1976, he took a leave of absence from CUNY to work for the Financial Control Board, where he impressed colleagues. It was a short hop to the chancellorship.

“It was the best job I ever had, and I loved it,” Dr. Macchiarola told an interviewer in 2000 when his name was being floated for the chancellorship again. It was an unusual remark for the former holder of a job that exhausts most of its occupants. He also had advice for those who would hold the office.

“As chancellor I constantly prayed not to confuse myself with God,” he said. “They need to find a chancellor committed to providing leadership but who never shuts the door to someone’s ideas, or to the people who harangue and torture you. Otherwise, you end up defending something just because it’s yours.”

Originally published by The New York Times