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Guest Blog Post: James Merriman Remembers Frank Macchiarola

Note: When we heard about the passing of former NYC Schools Chancellor Frank Macchiarola yesterday, we asked our friend James Merriman to remember the man he knew as a friend. Merriman is CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Yesterday, Frank J. Macchiarola, former New York City Schools Chancellor (1978-83), passed away. Long before anyone had ever thought of education reform—and certainly decades before there were Democrats for it—Frank was a true-blue Democrat for education reform. Despite having left the chancellorship almost 30 years ago, he is remembered by many in this city simply as The Chancellor, the implication being that no one could or would surpass his legacy.

I knew that legacy well (if second-hand), having been tasked by him in 1988 to review and digest every press clipping about his time as chancellor. He was preparing his run for City Comptroller the next year, a contest in which he came in third. This was an outcome he came in later years to see as a blessing. (And,it did not hurt either that the winner and second place finisher ended their public careers in disgrace.)

What emerged from those clippings was a vibrant, highly educated, deeply spiritual but nonetheless tough, street-smart fighter for children. Whether battling Mayor Koch for more money for his schools or the corrupt bus drivers’ union (and the even more corrupt companies that employed them) or taking on the UFT, Frank fought hard for schools to be organized in ways that worked for children. But as he fought, he never lost his direction or way, never let his anger get the better of him, and always looked for a way to get to a good solution that if possible left the dignity of the other side intact. It takes a remarkable man to say directly of the UFT that their job was to worry about their members and his job was to worry about the well-being of school children and yet have the father of that organization, Al Shanker, ask him to stay on when he had decided to leave.

It is worth remembering that not so much caused him to depart but precipitated him doing so. He had proposed that in one Community School District in Queens, they pilot a re-arrangement of grades, moving to the now familiar middle-school model with 9th graders moving to the high schools. Importantly, he had cast it as a choice, rather than a mandate. The proposition, however, infuriated the unions and the various other adult interests that the school system seemingly had been built to serve. Enough was enough. Having left, he would often tell people it was his best job ever but that being chancellor was like being doomed to listen to Frank Sinatra and only Frank Sinatra. Sure you loved him, but not necessarily 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But as wonderful a schools chancellor as Frank was, he was an even finer man. Mentor to countless hundreds if not thousands of young people as well as confidant and minister to colleagues, those who spent time with him felt their spirits soothed and succored. Though comfortable with business titans, he had a healthy skepticism of the power of money and prestige. At one point he said to one particularly prominent example of the species who surrounded himself with courtiers, “Poor guy, no one ever tells him no.” So, too, he loved his Church and God with a depth that few could fathom and fewer still could match. Yet, at the same time, his eyes were open to the flaws of its leaders, understanding that its ultimate strength came from its parishioners. More remarkable for such a man, he wore his religion lightly. He was able to serve as the dean of Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva while also serving as president of St. Francis College. At both institutions he would preach precisely the same values, the same lessons and the same timeless truths but in such a way that those two very different audiences could understand and appreciate his words.

The city is immensely richer for having had him and immensely the poorer now that he is gone.