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In early March, one of the city’s oldest education reform groups suffered a strange kind of coup. Citing money worries, the board of the historically left-of-center Public Educators Association made a surprise decision in early March to merge the organization with the Center for Educational Innovation, a think tank born of and cultivated by the right-wing Manhattan Institute. And the executive director, Ray Domanico? He promptly quit and joined up with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)–one of the nation’s biggest and most aggressive community organizing groups.

“You would think they would have asked me about it,” Domanico said. He was surprised–and felt betrayed–by the board’s unilateral decision, especially since he knew the organization they had chosen to merge with well: He had been one of CEI’s founders. But after four years at CEI, Domanico left, feeling frustrated by the lack of parent activism and involvement. He then joined up with PEA, a 100-year-old civic group that counsels parents, advocates for reform and publishes a field guide to New York City’s high schools.

Domanico’s intent in moving to PEA was to get back to his grassroots with a parent organizing program. Working with Metro IAF, he set up a project that has mobilized about 200 parent leaders in 14 educational “dead zones”–pockets of the city that have the worst elementary and junior high schools. Two-thirds of the money came from PEA. But as education advisor at IAF, Domanico will take the program with him.

PEA Senior Research Fellow Clara Hemphill called the board’s move “bizarre politics.” “It’s very bad form for the board of trustees to merge with another group without further discussions with the staff or with the funders,” she said.

PEA’s board defends the decision. Trustee Ernest Rubinstein explained that all PEA policies are made exclusively by the board, with or without staff consent. “We wanted to help keep PEA alive,” agreed Cole Gann, a CEI senior fellow who is now PEA’s acting executive director. Gann said that PEA board members were also dissatisfied with Domanico’s management style in dealing with the budget deficit.

Budget deficits are normal, responded Domanico. He notes that during his tenure at the organization, he doubled its budget and has balanced it annually, one year even deferring his own salary. “I think they [the board] simply got tired of raising money for PEA,” he explained.

But the merger won’t just affect cash flow: According to Gann, the IAF organizers are too confrontational to fit in with the newly revamped PEA/CEI structure. “We don’t really love their style of getting into people’s faces with the issue,” he said.

The final merger is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2000.

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