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The Real McCoy

When Mr. Mayer theorizes about the members of the governing board, most of whom he neither describes nor even identifies, he is dealing with fairly malleable stuff. But when he comes to Rhody McCoy, the unit administrator of the Ocean Hill district, “a compact, thoughtful, impressive schoolman of eighteen years’ experience in New York…committed,” Mr. Mayer says, “to a range of educational innovations in the project’s classrooms,” he is up against a different kind of problem, for most of McCoy’s activities during the months in question are either part of the public record or within the reach of a conscientious reporter. “From May to December,” Mr. Mayer says, McCoy “was the only person who met regularly with all the disputants….”

Had the “thoughtful and impressive” McCoy been part of a plan, as Mr. Mayer assumes he was, to force the presumed confrontation, then surely someone among the scores of people McCoy met with, whether on the governing board, the central Board of Education, or within the UFT, in the superintendent’s office, or among the many reporters, including Mr. Mayer himself, who interviewed him, should have been able to supply, if not McCoy’s entire manifesto, then at least an incriminating sentence or two; something, for example, comparable to the statement by Albert Shanker, which Mr. Mayer doesn’t mention, on the occasion of the third teachers’ strike last October, that the objective this time was the destruction of the Ocean Hill experimental district. But if Mr. Mayer has gathered such material he has kept it to himself and has chosen instead to render the “compact” Mr. McCoy as incorporeal as he had the governing board. In Mr. Mayer’s view, “confusion followed [McCoy] wherever he went, as the fog follows the tide.”

Mr. Mayer, nevertheless, charges that McCoy was the chief mischief-maker of them all and “the source of any number of inflammatory statements,” though Mr. Mayer, in his quest for the truth, neither gives us the number of these statements nor troubles to quote a single example beyond the rather neutral observation, which he attributes to McCoy, that when a Negro mother sees that a whole class of Negro children is failing, she may conclude that the school “system is designed to keep black children down.” Presumably Mr. Mayer feels that it would have been less inflammatory had the mother said that if a whole class of Negro children is failing then Negro children must be stupider than other children, or, in the jargon of the school system, that they are “culturally deprived.” Later in his book Mr. Mayer acknowledges that such admissions are “psychologically” difficult for parents to make.

According to Mr. Mayer, the complex plot that McCoy hatched was independent of what the governing board itself was conspiring to do. Furthermore, the success of McCoy’s scheme depended upon his keeping his principal maneuver secret from the board. What McCoy was secretly up to from September 1967 through April 1968, according to Mr. Mayer, was, strangely enough, nothing less than an attempt to arrange the orderly dismissal, through routine channels, of the same teachers whom the governing board wanted to “fire” so that someone on it could “make a splash.” McCoy’s subtle technique was to work discreetly with Superintendent of Schools Donovan, “who was ready,” Mr. Mayer says, “to help McCoy quietly transfer out people he didn’t want.” Far from pleasing McCoy, however, Donovan’s acquiescence, Mr. Mayer says, threatened to ruin his scheme. This required the “thoughtful schoolman” to play an extremely complicated double game. It also requires Mr. Mayer’s unfortunate reader to untangle an even more complicated and sloppy argument.

According to Mr. Mayer, McCoy was slyly trying to provoke the Ocean Hill governing board into a precipitate and dangerous decision to “fire” the unwanted teachers (even though the governing board had been planning such an action on its own) by refusing to tell its members that they didn’t have to “fire” the teachers at all. Donovan was going to do it for them. Had the governing board known what Donovan was willing to do, McCoy’s plot would have been ruined, for the board would then not have been able to fire anybody. Thus McCoy would, Mr. Mayer says, “have lost most of the confrontation.” But by lying to the local board McCoy managed to keep Donovan’s intentions a secret, and by the beginning of May McCoy had “tricked” the board into its desperate action. Convinced that Donovan would never go along with its plans, the board on May 8 demanded that the unwanted teachers be sent out of the district,3 and thus the teachers’ strikes which were called in the fall of 1968 became inevitable.

It is unclear from Mr. Mayer’s account why it was necessary for McCoy to go to these lengths to provoke the local governing board when, according to Mr. Mayer, the governing board had long since decided on its own to “fire a group of teachers” for no better reason than to make a “splash.” It is even less clear why McCoy had bothered to discuss the question of the teachers with Donovan at all if his intention had been simply to convince the governing board that Donovan wasn’t going to agree to the dismissals. Even less clear are the names of the teachers whom McCoy and Donovan had been discussing and whom Donovan had agreed to help transfer out.

According to Mr. Mayer, the UFT too had agreed to let Ocean Hill “fire” a number of unwanted teachers or, in the jargon of the system, arrange for their “involuntary transfer.” Mr. Mayer doubts, however, that the union would have agreed to let the local board “fire” a group of teachers which included the chairmen of its own union chapters in Ocean Hill. But in the view of the Ocean Hill board, these were precisely the teachers who had been attempting to sabotage the experimental district and whom the board, therefore, most wanted to get rid of. Perhaps it was for these same reasons that this was the group which the union most wanted to keep in Ocean Hill. As it happened, these chapter chairmen were among the teachers to whom the governing board sent the letters of dismissal.

In any case, it is impossible to tell from Mr. Mayer’s account whether it was this group whom Donovan had been willing “to help…quietly transfer out,” or whether he had in mind another group to whose fate the union presumably was indifferent. Common sense, however, would suggest that Donovan could not have had the group including the union chapter chairmen in mind, for had Donovan offered to sacrifice this group he would himself have been responsible for causing the strike, in which case he would appear either to have been insane or part of a plot to force the confrontation. Neither of these hypotheses is likely, however, for, according to Mr. Mayer, Donovan was “more of a politician, perhaps, than anyone else involved in the story.” Almost certainly, therefore, Donovan could not have promised to help McCoy “fire” the same group of teachers whom the governing board wanted to get rid of but whom the UFT wanted to keep.

It is impossible, then, to understand why it had been necessary for McCoy to lie to the governing board about Donovan’s intentions. To make matters still more confusing, Mr. Mayer concludes this account by saying, perhaps inadvertently, that “McCoy had never asked Donovan to transfer out any teachers” at all. It is typical of Mr. Mayer’s carelessness that only two pages before he says that “McCoy had mentioned to Donovan that some people were going to have to go.”

Mr. Mayer admits, however, that it was “more difficult than the casual observer might think” for McCoy to have been involved in such an unlikely plot; and this would seem to be the case, since no one else, including Albert Shanker, President of the UFT, has come up with a similar hypothesis to explain the complex events which led to the school strikes. This may only mean, however, that other observers of these events are, to use a word that Mr. Mayer enjoys, “ignorant.” “To this day,” Mr. Mayer says, “most members of the Ocean Hill governing board believe that McCoy asked to be relieved of the people” whom the board wanted to get rid of, “and got nowhere. And thus,” Mr. Mayer says, McCoy’s “trick was accomplished.”

Mr. Mayer neglects, however, to give the names of this astute minority of governing board members who were not taken in by McCoy’s “trick,” nor does he explain why they failed to convey their misgivings to their colleagues, if not to the press. Though it is too late to undo the effects of the “trick” that McCoy played on them, these board members might at least try to get rid of McCoy so that he can’t betray Ocean Hill again. That Mr. Mayer finds no evidence of such misgivings on the part of the unnamed board members who presumably saw through McCoy’s scheme might lead one to conclude (Mr. Mayer, at any rate, seems to conclude) that the board accepted McCoy’s duplicity as a matter of course, the sort of thing that typically happens when ghetto leaders try to run a school district.

It would seem more plausible, however, to accept the word of those governing board members who insist that they had known all along of McCoy’s discussions with Donovan about the unwanted teachers, especially since McCoy and the governing board, in the weeks before the dismissals were finally announced, had met twice with the superintendent and the central Board and had come away with the impression that Donovan wasn’t going to do anything about the teachers whom the Ocean Hill board wanted to get rid of. It was only after these meetings, in March and April, that the governing board, “against, McCoy’s advice,” according to Father Powis, whom Mr. Mayer quotes without disagreement, decided to act on its own and order the unwanted teachers to report for reassignment. Mr. Mayer neglects to mention these meetings, though they are recorded in the minutes of the governing board and are referred to in a document which the governing board released and which Mr. Mayer appears to have read: had he mentioned these meetings he would, of course, have made it all the harder for a “casual observer” to accept his version of the “confrontation.”

What a disinterested, if not necessarily a “casual” observer might conclude from all this is that McCoy had been negotiating with Donovan not in order to force a “confrontation” but to avoid one. Both Donovan and McCoy had spent enough time in the school system to know that to transfer the chapter chairmen would bring on the wrath of the UFT, which would in turn seriously endanger or perhaps destroy Ocean Hill and with it any hope of city-wide decentralization. By early April, apparently, it became clear that Donovan could not agree to the transfers without causing the UFT to strike and McCoy could no longer control his board. The “confrontation” followed.4

  1. 3

    The letter of dismissal which was sent to the unwanted teachers advised them to report to school headquarters for reassignment. This is the normal procedure in the case of “involuntary transfers,” which Mr. Mayer agrees are routine within the system. The governing board neither intended to “fire” the teachers, as the UFT and Mr. Mayer have accused it of doing, nor did it have the power to “fire” them if it wanted to, as Mr. Mayer himself points out, somewhat confusingly in view of what he had said earlier. The governing board simply wanted these teachers out of its district and reassigned to schools in other districts. Had the superintendent and the UFT agreed to this procedure, as Mr. Mayer feels that they had, there could hardly have been the “confrontation” that eventually occurred. But they did not agree, and the confrontation did occur. Despite the letter advising the teachers to report to headquarters for “reassignment” (i.e., transfer to another district), Mr. Mayer insists that “there is absolutely no evidence [“in the documents of the time”] to support” the contention that the Ocean Hill Board tried to transfer the teachers routinely. The evidence is the letter of dismissal, which Mr. Mayer reproduces in his book, but from which, as I have noted, he has omitted the crucial sentence ordering the teachers to report to headquarters for “reassignment.”

  2. 4

    In order to dramatize the issue on which it chose to strike the entire school system on behalf of a grievance within a single district, the UFT argued that the teachers had been dismissed without “due process.” Mr. Mayer’s argument implies that Donovan offered to reassign these people through “due process” but that McCoy did not convey this offer to his board. This argument, as has been shown, does not bear scrutiny. Nor is it accurate for Mr. Mayer and the UFT to talk of “firing” teachers without “due process” when these teachers were not to suffer a loss of pay or seniority and indeed were likely to have been transferred to jobs more congenial than the ones they had. Shanker, in fact, had to urge his teachers, as the present school year began, to stay in their jobs in Ocean Hill, no matter how they may have wanted to get out, because he too was interested in “forcing a confrontation.”

    However, the dispute over “due process” remains, and it is unlikely to be settled one way or another. This is because of the complex procedures, covering twelve pages of the union contract, established between headquarters and the UFT for such matters, and because of the tendency at headquarters to by-pass these procedures through informal means when it appears that the UFT won’t retaliate. A simple, if provisional, formula might be that the governing board did, in fact, attempt to dismiss (though not to “fire”) the teachers from its district and did, in fact, ask that the teachers be reassigned elsewhere, a routine procedure, according to Mr. Mayer, which the central administration refused to follow in this case. If there was a failure of “due process” the responsibility, therefore, is in the central administration for failing to carry out a routine procedure as much as in the local board for proceeding without headquarters’ approval. It is interesting to ask why, if such procedures are routine throughout the system, headquarters refused to apply them in this case and why the UFT responded as violently as it did when, in the case of routine transfers from other districts, it seldom bothered to respond at all.

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