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Queens Chronicle

Colman Genn, Whistleblower In School System, Dead At 68

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Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2004 12:00 am

Colman Genn, the former superintendent of Community School Board 27 who made national headlines for exposing corruption on the board in 1989, died Thursday at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. He was 68.

Genn was appointed as superintendent of CSB 27 in 1987 after spending 27 years working at schools in East Harlem. He had served for a year and a half before he appeared before the Joint Commission on Integrity in Public Schools, commonly called the Gill Commission, which was created by Mayor Ed Koch in 1988.

Genn proved to be the star witness for the commission, and his testimony and wire recordings upset a long-standing order in south Queens. He was profiled in The New York Times and on a 60 Minutes special for his actions. Two members of CSB 27 were convicted of fraud, and all nine members were dismissed.

Many in the education community consider Genn a hero for exposing patronage schemes and race-influenced corruption on the board, but his legacy here, where the effects were strongly felt, is mixed. “Some people see him as a hero, but some people see him as a troublemaker,” said Steve Greenberg, who was a trustee of the board during the commission’s hearings. Greenberg was the president of the board when it was dissolved last month.

Nonetheless, Genn is hailed as someone who fought to fix the holes in the DOE’s bureaucracy in a position where many would have followed orders. He was a lifetime educator who joined the New York City Public Schools system as a math teacher at Brownsville Junior High School in Brooklyn in 1958.

He later became a gym teacher at an East Harlem school and eventually worked to create three small schools in the neighborhood: the Manhattan Center for Science and Math, the Harbor School for the Performing Arts and the Academy of Environmental Sciences. The instructional schools are still considered models for small public schools.

After he was appointed to CSB 27 in 1987, he became aware that at least two of the board members were engaged in illegal and unethical activities. Shortly thereafter, he approached the Gill Commission and volunteered to wear a wire.

The most serious conversations Genn recorded were those with James Sullivan, who is a former Republican district leader in the Rockaways who was taped saying that he was on the board to “make sure my people” get administrative jobs. Genn estimated the total spending on unnecessary administrative jobs in District 27 to be more than $1 million per year.

In another conversation, Sal Stazzone, who was fingered as one of the ringleaders along with Sullivan and Samuel Granirer, told Genn, “We got a dirty district here.” When asked in what sense he meant the district was dirty, Stazzone said, “We’ve all sold out to a certain extent. All right?”

There were also taped conversations that indicated one board member did not want blacks or Jews receiving administrative positions if it was avoidable. Genn testified that Sullivan and Granirer told him that “if I would be a good boy and allow them to take charge of appointments and personnel issues, I could have a nice long career as superintendent.”

Genn said the patronage “makes a lie of my existence. The pervasiveness of it started to impinge on me, like when you make a budget. Money you spend on somebody who does no work is money not spent on kids to reduce class size and all the other things you want to do for kids.”

Sullivan and Granirer both pled guilty to single counts of fraud and avoided lengthy prison sentences. Genn retired from the DOE one year later due to stress from the commission hearings. He was under police protection, worried for his personal safety and his health was failing. He smoked regularly and had a bad case of asthma.

He later became a fellow at the Center for Education Innovation-Public Education Association, an offshoot of the Manhattan Institute, and was on the short list to become chancellor in 1993. At the CEI-PEA, he created more specialty schools in Chicago, Baltimore, Newark and Israel and also in New York City, where he founded the Wildcat Academy, the Young Women’s Leadership School and the KIPP Academy.

Sy Fliegel, the president of the CEI-PEA, said Genn was a hero in the education community prior to the Gill Commission hearings.. “Whether fighting thugs in the school yard or thugs in a corrupt school board, Cole pursued justice for the most disenfranchised children. He created truly safe learning environments for children who quite often had no other safe place in their lives… When Cole Genn passed away last Thursday, schoolchildren lost one of their greatest allies. We will never see the likes of him again.”

Genn is survived by his wife, Brenda, of Hewlett; his son, David Genn, of Briarcliff Manor; daughter Shari Shapiro of Lawrence; three brothers, Reuven of Israel; Mordechai, of Mount Vernon; and Manny, of Tenafly, N.J. and four grandchildren.

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