Harold Levy’s Class War

Somewhere over the quasi-permanent scaffolding that comes between Harold Levy and his tenth-floor view of downtown Brooklyn, there’s a sun that’s shining. But he’ll have to take it on faith. The chancellor of New York City’s public schools, ever in pinstripes with a white handkerchief and banker’s contrast-collar shirt, is holding court in a long, wide office that his predecessor, Rudy Crew, had used only for ceremonial purposes. Mud-colored carpet covers the floor, but Levy has worked to personalize the place: On a sofa rests a little pillow with the crocheted maxim NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED, and on the wall above it is a portrait of Sir Thomas More.

Sir Thomas More, as Levy tells anyone who asks, studied law at Oxford and aspired to an intellectual life as a monk, until an overriding sense of duty propelled him into British politics. After becoming chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1525, he begged to differ with his boss, Henry XIII, over a point of ecclesiastical law – and was beheaded for his trouble. “He’s a lawyer, he’s an educator, he’s a real chancellor, and he died for his principles,” Levy explains, savoring the pun. “It’s a sort of inspirational reminder that things could be worse.”

Call it Harold Levy’s version of the serenity prayer – and, perhaps, a personal cautionary tale. While Levy is no monk, he did renounce a seven-figure job at Citigroup in January to follow what he calls his “better nature” to lead the schools. He knows that running this system, the largest in the country, has become the ultimate thankless task: The Board of Education comes under fire so often that whoever’s in charge, as Levy’s own wife, Pat Sapinsley, has worried, is “a little bit of a sitting duck.” Each time a chancellor ambles into town, it’s like High Noon: He’s hailed as a savior who will fight for the children – defending them from politicians and bureaucrats. Then, after a lightning-fast honeymoon, each is martyred, taking the rap for a systemic blunder or pressured out by a testy mayor.

But so far, Levy is a little different. Unlike the many who have parachuted into New York for the job, he is local, independent, and rich. He went to an Ivy League school and, by way of Oxford, an Ivy League law school. He’s cultivated the friendship of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, real-estate powerhouse Jack Rudin, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. His Wall Street career – he survived three corporate mergers, proceeding from Salomon Brothers to Travelers to Citigroup, becoming the current company’s head of global compliance – brought him into contact with mayoral confidants Tony Coles, Randy Levine, and Randy Mastro, all once and future private-sector lawyers. “They’d all die for $10 million in litigation from us,” Levy says.

“I want to get people in the teaching system who will ace that test,” Levy says of the certification exam, “who will bring a certain intellectual capacity to the job.”

Friends like these have done much to inoculate Levy from the mayoral harangues that politically isolated his predecessors Rudy Crew and Ray Cortines. After first refusing even to speak to Levy, Rudy Giuliani publicly commended him on the first day of school for presiding over a colossal summer-school program in which a full third of the students failed – the prevailing presumption being that the results could have been a whole lot worse. “I had low expectations for it,” Levy acknowledges now, smiling at what could have been an early Waterloo.

In short order, he’s reconnected the board with other critics who have long considered it a bunker. Edward Stancik, the dogged investigator of school corruption and nemesis of many a schools chancellor, called Levy in March to tell him he was the first chancellor he’s ever actually heard use the C-word – cheating – in public. “I think Levy’s really smart,” Stancik attests. Diane Ravitch, the conservative schools critic, came out against Levy’s summer-school program. Then he invited her to drop by; now she calls him “fresh-faced” and “a good man doing a valiant job.” And a few weeks ago, Levy lunched at Nobu with Ted Forstmann, the relentless leveraged-buyout master who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to airlift kids out of public school and into private school. When Forstmann told Levy that the public schools were the last great monopoly, Levy cheerfully agreed – and added that anyone who thought they would go the way of Ma Bell was kidding himself. “The idea that private education will be anything more than a sideshow is illusory,” Levy told him. Forstmann picked up the check.

As Levy’s honeymoon winds down, he’s started wearing his independence on his sleeve. His harshest coverage came last month during his contract negotiation, when he declared his intention to pocket a $10,000-a-month housing allowance in lieu of living in the Brooklyn Heights townhouse that the board reserves for chancellors. The move smacked of corporate hardball, and Levy won, concluding the negotiation last week with no apologies. The maneuver was, to him, a symbolic way of reminding the board that he doesn’t need this job. “There was all this language about giving the chancellor a form of tenure,” Levy tells me, “and I crossed all that stuff out. I want this to be a modern contract: If the board doesn’t like me, I leave, and if I don’t like the board, I leave. If I had to move into that building, it would have compromised my ability to withdraw.”

But what about those editorials accusing him of Wall Street greed? What went through his head when he picked up the Daily News and read, “What next, chancellor? Servants?”

Levy laughs and delivers a whaddya-gonna-do shrug. “I usually like the Daily News editorials,” he says.

The schools, of course, suffer from ills that some powerful friends can’t cure. Levy understands that he has arrived at the board at its worst moment since the 1993 asbestos crisis. Over the next five years, the city expects to lose more than half its 78,000 teachers, mostly through attrition. An entire generation of teachers who came in during the Great Society are now poised to retire, with practically no one willing to replace them.

The teacher shortage is national in scope but most acute in New York. It speaks not just to a lack of interest in entering teaching as a profession but to a growing consensus that this city simply isn’t a good place to be a teacher. A sampling of what scares people off: Sex attacks in the schools have tripled, according to the latest statistics. Standardized-test scores wallow below 50 percent. The system suffers from budget shortfalls, overcrowded and crumbling facilities, and salaries that can’t compete with those of the suburbs. If that isn’t enough for the chancellor’s rookie year, a potentially incendiary teacher’s-contract negotiation looms with a November 15 deadline, and the mayor wants him to slash 75 percent of the board’s bureaucracy.

If Levy privately flinches at the scope of the job he’s taken on – “On several occasions, he’s said to me, ‘Ray, you never told me how difficult it is,’ ” reports his friend Ray Cortines, now in San Francisco – publicly, he’s all smiles. In person, he alternates between Ivy League cheekiness and a restless high-mindedness: Politically, he comes off both as a purebred West Side liberal who’s following his social conscience (while, it must be noted, sending his own children to private school) and as a tough Wall Street type, ready to whip the board into shape.

Levy’s corporate background belies the fact that he’s a longtime public-education wonk. As the head of a 1995 commission on school facilities formed by Cortines, he drew attention to the aging infrastructure. As a member of the State Board of Regents, he led the charge to extract more state funding for city schools. He’s certainly not there to tear the place apart. Yet this is the same chancellor who, in the past few months, has agreed to privatize some of the system’s most troubled schools, who challenged the teachers’ union by launching an alternative-certification program, and who vowed not to come back from the teachers’ negotiation table without major changes. “I think there are two Harold Levys, and I’ve seen both of them,” says Sol Stern, the conservative Manhattan Institute fellow and staunch opponent of the union. “One is wedded to the idea that the schools need more money. And the other understands there are structural problems in the way the system is set up. We’re already beginning to see he’s leaning toward the structural approach. But I think he’s of two minds about it.”

What Levy says he wants most of all is to get beyond the hurdle of ideology. Vouchers are illegal in New York State, he says, so why bother talking about them? A little dabbling in privatization, he says, never hurt anybody, right? Instead, he’d rather be an apolitical ambassador for the schools. This, he suggests, might explain some of his impulsive, loftier behavior: Levy has garnered headlines for sending Wallace Stevens poems to board members and coaxing Isaac Stern into teaching violin to his 43 superintendents. He drops references to thinkers as disparate as Stephen L. Carter and Adam Smith. Once, he used The Praise of Folly as the title for a Regents district report. “One or two people got the Erasmus reference,” he told me, beaming. Tall with a regal, half-bare cranium and scholarly wire-rimmed glasses, he opens speeches with sprawling, idealistic principles that no one can argue with. “Our teachers are the vessels through which we convey civilization,” he told a teachers’ group in April … and a graduating class of certified teachers in June. The push for profundity is entirely intentional.

Of course, this doesn’t mean he lacks an agenda. Take the United Federation of Teachers negotiation. While Levy has vowed to fight for teacher raises, he’s also convinced that if he can change the contract to streamline the arbitration process – the way in which the union defends its members from dismissal – incompetent teachers will no longer have the protections they have now. It’s a typical Levy end run: Praise teachers while changing the fine print to weaken their ability to protect the bad ones.

As above-the-fray as he tries to be, Levy is short-fused about attempts to get in his way. Last month, Richard Mills, the state education commissioner, sued Levy for not steering certified teachers to the system’s weakest schools. Levy was outraged enough to call Mills, a friend, and yell at him – and then broker a compromise before the school year started. The settlement requires him to have an all-certified teaching staff by 2003, something he insists just isn’t possible without attracting subpar teachers; he points out that already, almost a third of the city’s teachers flunked the certification exam the first time out.

The silver lining in this situation is alternative teacher recruitment, a Levy-inspired outreach program that netted 330 new teachers this summer. They’re motivated and talented: 96 percent of them passed the certification test with just a month of preparation. The fact that the state wanted to steer these new people to the very worst schools burns Levy up – but the program itself has promise. “That told me we were really onto something,” Levy says. “I want to get people in the system who will ace that test – who will bring a certain intellectual capacity to the job.”

But for such a program to work, Levy must become even more of a Pied Piper for the schools than he is already. The thankless task gets even tougher. And Levy’s smile widens.

“My reaction was, ‘who in their right mind would take such a terrible job?’ ” Pat Sapinsley remembers. It was the first week of January, the kids were in bed, and she and her husband were doing the dishes in their Riverside Drive apartment when the husband told the wife he wanted to be schools chancellor.

“I was shocked that he would even consider it,” says Sapinsley, who had put her own career as an architect on hold to raise the couple’s two children. “I was concerned that we would never see him. I was concerned, given the political climate in the city, how difficult a job it could be.” Only when she started detailing her fears did she realize how badly he wanted the job. “He said, kind of quietly, ‘Did it ever occur to you that I might enjoy it?’ “

A son of Jewish war refugees, Harold Oscar Levy grew up with a Holocaust-tinged worldview and an immigrant striver’s mentality. He had the additional burden of being his parents’ only surviving child. Arriving from Germany in 1939, they had settled in Washington Heights and had a daughter who suffered from nephritis, a kidney disease that left her unable to walk. She spent several years in the hospital before dying in 1951; Harold was born a year later. The sister Levy never knew was an invalid, and for that reason was set apart from the other children in school. “My mother,” Levy says, “has less than tender memories of the New York City Board of Education’s treatment of that child.”

He made his first political connection without even knowing it. Levy’s father owned the Kronel Thrift Store on West Fordham Road in the Bronx, a hardware store partly supplied by a wholesaling business run by Sheldon Silver’s family. Harold attended a yeshiva kindergarten on 187th Street in Manhattan, but before the boy entered P.S. 189, his family returned to Germany seeking reparations, and he had a six-month sojourn at a nunnery kindergarten, where he remembers getting “more than my share” of corporal punishment. “I mean, on the whole, it was actually a very good experience,” he says now, “because I learned to speak German.”

He jumped from Junior High School 52 to Bronx Science, and then to Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school, where he was in the top of his class. It was there that he first read Utopia and Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly, in a great-books class conducted by Milton Konvitz, an assistant general council of the NAACP legal-defense fund and scholar who holds honorary degrees from the three major Jewish seminaries. “I can only hope to aspire to little snippets of what he does in first gear,” Levy says. “He taught me how to be a reflective person – how to be a mensch.”

The mentorship evolved into a 25-year correspondence that continues today. “Harold loves to write,” Sapinsley explains, “and by keeping up a correspondence with someone who truly is a nineteenth-century figure, he gets to write these long, florid letters.” Konvitz, now 92, speaking from his home in Oakhurst, New Jersey, describes his old pupil as a polymath. “He picks up all sorts of things,” he says. “One of the things he wrote me about recently is that he read Oliver Wendell Holmes’s correspondence with Harold Laski. He wants to do something meaningful with his life – something he would be able to justify philosophically.”

After a year at Oxford, Levy chose a well-traveled road: Cornell Law School, a federal clerkship in Buffalo (and work on a school-desegregation case), a job in the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice, and finally corporate law. It was as a commercial litigator for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom that he started seeking out pro bono work, and before long he found himself in the outer reaches of the bureaucratic galaxy – the audit-advisory committee of the high-school division of the Board of Education.

It was a morning-a-month commitment that Levy remembers as vaguely stultifying stuff – reviewing how much is spent for textbooks, repairs, and the like – until he suggested that the auditors and the people they audited show up at the same meetings and face one another. A bureaucratic snore turned into a night at the fights. “Unbeknownst to me, the people in these meetings loved it,” Levy says. “The auditors finally got somebody to listen to them – and the people being audited got to stick it to those cockamamie auditors. And for eighteen months, I got tutorials on the idiocy that goes on in this system – $100,000 in computers, lost with a shrug of the shoulders; somebody records books missing because they were filed slightly the wrong way.”

A phone call from Ray Cortines in 1995 pulled Levy deeper into the system. Levy recalls Cortines’s telling him that “his people” had said Levy was the right man to head up a new commission on school facilities. Levy stacked the roster with a mix of the city’s master builders and power brokers – Jack Rudin, former Nelson Rockefeller adviser Alton Marshall, City College president Yolanda Moses, and former city finance commissioner Anthony Shorris. “He didn’t know a face brick from a teakettle, but he learned,” says Rudin. From the beginning, though, Levy knew how to impress the Albany staff, holding meetings in the posh Salomon Brothers conference room. People in the meetings remember never having seen anything like it before.

When the commission drew its conclusion that the schools needed $11 billion in investment, Levy worried that the report would die the slow death of most Albany committee reports – so he directed the media to a class being held in a bathroom. The images endured. “There was a Regents hearing on the report, and everybody was looking for a site for the hearing,” remembers Elaine Frazier, Silver’s aide at the time. “And Harold wanted to have the hearing on the top floor in one of the school buildings because it was unsafe. That was Harold O. Levy.”

In 1995, as Levy was rediscovering the public-school system, he and his wife found themselves deliberating whether to send their kids, Hannah and Noah, to a public school. After a year of discussion, they chose Dalton instead.

“It was soul-searching, because our values told us to support the public schools,” says Sapinsley. “He knew the buildings were falling apart. And I became an architect because I was exposed to art at an early age, and a lot of my decision was based on telling Harold I did not want to deprive our daughter of the influences of music and art that I had.” It’s a decision that stirs up some of Levy’s most important constituents. “Harold brings some very good ideas,” says one superintendent. “But it’s like telling someone to eat at a restaurant when you don’t eat in it.”

Levy stayed true to the schools in his fashion, letting Sheldon Silver know he wanted to join the State Board of Regents. For years, the Regents were largely ceremonial, but Silver, in the midst of a not-so-cold war with George Pataki, wanted to make them more activist. Levy joined the cause: He took the annual school-statistics report required by the legislature and read every page. “He’d string these facts together to show how little was spent on New York City compared to comparable urban centers in the state,” recalls Steve Allinger, then the deputy budget director of the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, and now Levy’s chief Albany lobbyist. “He was a lawyer preparing for litigation, preparing a brief. I was amazed. He’d make transparencies, and he’d make an audiovisual presentation that was quite impressive. They became known as Harold’s charts.”

Levy, still a Wall Street man, became a one-man lobbyist for the public schools. “When we went to the governor’s mansion, Harold was actually arguing with him about money,” remembers Merryl Tisch, wife of James, who joined the Board of Regents around the same time as Levy. “At the end of it, the governor said, ‘You know, this is the most talented group of people I’ve ever looked to throw out of office.’ “

Last winter, when Levy decided he wanted to fill Rudy Crew’s shoes, his wife wasn’t the only one who was surprised. “I told him, ‘I think you have the ability to do it, but you’re really spinning wheels if you think you can make all this happen,’ ” says Sanford Weil, the Citigroup chairman. “But he told me what he thought he could accomplish, and his motives were as pure as the driven snow.”

Only when she started detailing her fears did Levy’s wife realize how badly he wanted the job. “He said, ‘Did it ever occur to you that I might enjoy it?’”

It was a Wednesday in April, his eighty-fourth day on the job, and Levy, still technically the interim chancellor, had climbed out of his Board of Ed Town Car and stepped into C.S. 200, an aging, shabby elementary school on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in Harlem, a city-mandated bodyguard one step ahead of him. Two days earlier, a 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy had slipped out of a classroom, sneaked into an abandoned stairwell, and had sex. Hours later, the boy bragged about it to two 12-year-old friends, who then tracked the girl down and raped her.

When something is not going right, Levy sometimes allows himself to get mad. “Rule by tantrum,” he calls it. That day in Harlem, he had no trouble losing it. “In the course of a conversation, the principal said, ‘Well, these things happen in schools.’ ” Levy recalled later. “My reaction was, ‘What do you mean these things happen? They don’t happen!’ “

It turns out, though, they really do happen: This wasn’t the first time, even that year, that something like that had happened at this very school. After an hour in the principal’s office, Levy had had enough. He stormed out of the school and into the Town Car.

The next week, the kids were out of school for vacation, but Levy agonized a full week after that before demoting two staff members and firing a third. This remains his chief regret about his first months as chancellor. “I should have shot from the hip, and I didn’t,” Levy told me. “It was in part because I was new, and I didn’t have the courage. If something had happened when they were there, I would never, never have forgiven myself.”

But he did send an e-mail to every principal in the school system, explaining that C.S. 200’s principal was disciplined not because of the rapes but for trying to downplay them. “If he had advised his supervisor, it would have been treated as a call for help, not an admission of failure,” Levy wrote. “Good managers do not shoot the messenger.”

At the Board of Education, where scapegoating has long been a recreational sport, such e-mails are unheard of. Levy had turned a tragedy into a management tutorial. The day he went to C.S. 200, he sent word to the Board of Ed to consider him for the permanent chancellor’s position.

For once, he’s not in pinstripes. Instead, he’s a symphony in khaki, topped by a tan Board of Ed baseball cap. It’s the Sunday after the start of school, and Levy, Sapinsley, and their kids are at Shea Stadium, a few feet from the left-field foul pole. The Mets are honoring the New York City School Leadership Teams – a parent-awareness program spearheaded by the Urban League and the UFT, among other groups – and the Levys and a few dozen others have availed themselves of a special VIP terrace.

On at least one occasion, he’s been known to take a book to a ball game. But today, Levy is into it, happy the Mets are winning; at times he even stops to watch the game. “The best writers in the newspaper are on the sports page,” he declares. “All the day-to-day dramas, with characters – it’s like great fiction. It humanizes these large organizations.”

What role will Levy play in his Board of Ed drama? Even he has noted how, one by one, chancellors martyr themselves, but he laughs that off. “I get to play Don Quixote,” he says. “They had the privilege of leaving the city. I ain’t going nowhere. And I refuse to be impaled on anything. I’m taking everyone down with me.”

But some metaphors have a way of outstaying their welcome. “Last year, we were in Rome at the Colosseum,” he says, “and I said to the kids that all American stadiums are built like the Colosseum, with the tunnels inside. And so today we were walking through a tunnel inside Shea to get here, and I said, ‘See? Just like the Colosseum.’ “

The smile turns wry. “Then Hannah said something about lions.”

Harold Levy’s Class War