Tweed building changes school board outlook

New York panel previously worked in cramped quarters

October 23, 2002|By Abby Goodnough | Abby Goodnough,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Six weeks into its reincarnation as the headquarters of the New York City school system, the Tweed Courthouse has forced its 600 new inhabitants to make major adjustments.

For veterans of 110 Livingston St., the famously dismal buildings in downtown Brooklyn that housed the central school administration for 63 years, the sunlight dappling the halls of Tweed - filtered through the stained-glass skylight of a dazzling rotunda, no less - has been shocking.

"From the catacombs to the cathedral, right?" Chancellor Joel I. Klein said as he bustled through the third-floor hallway the other day, sweeping an arm toward the rotunda and grinning wickedly.

Klein may be the only "educrat," as the central school administrators are known, who is 100 percent pleased with the move to Tweed, which underwent a nearly $100 million renovation starting in 1999. Going from the warren-like offices of 110 Livingston to the airy, bullpen-style rooms that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg installed at Tweed has been, well, unsettling.

In contrast to the secretive culture that inspired one former chancellor to nickname 110 Livingston "the puzzle palace," all meetings at Tweed are held in the open, at gleaming new tables scattered through the ornamented hallways.

Hoping for a change

Klein and Bloomberg hope the physical change will bring about a profound cultural shift at the Department of Education, one idea being that a beautiful workplace will inspire administrators to work harder on behalf of the city's 1.1 million schoolchildren.

Bloomberg - who works in his own bullpen at City Hall, just behind Tweed - also believes the open layout will encourage cooperative planning and decision-making, neither of which was a hallmark of 110 Livingston.

Norman Fruchter, a New York University professor who studies the school system and has attended several meetings at Tweed, said he was "blown away" by the building's grandeur and believed its large, open spaces could indeed change how school system business is done.

"It does feel very different, to have a meeting with the chancellor or some other folks right in the cubicles or out in one of the public spaces," Fruchter saidOthers have noticed a sense of calm and order that they say was never present at 110 Livingston.

"Everything about that place was so chaotic," said Ernest Clayton, president of the United Parents Association of New York City. "It was almost like you were in a subway station. The first thing that strikes you about Tweed is the orderliness and the sense of professionalism."

Some Tweed transplants say that what Clayton perceives as orderliness, they see as an uncomfortably sterile, hushed environment. Working in the open in such opulent quarters feels oddly like being on display, they say, conjuring images of dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. The casual conversations, jokes and gripe fests that are common in most workplaces are rare at Tweed, these people say, because everything can be overheard.

"So much of the communication at 110 took place in the hallways, in the bathrooms, hanging out in someone's office," one midlevel employee said. "That may be the intent at Tweed, but it's going to be a long time before people feel comfortable having those spontaneous discussions."

Dennis M. Walcott, the deputy mayor for policy, does not consider the discomfort a bad thing.

"There is a higher level of professionalism in the way people are interacting and even dressing at Tweed because you know you are going to run into the boss," said Walcott, who can wave to Klein from the window of his City Hall office. "It's not like the boss is disappearing into his 10th-floor office or his car. The boss is suddenly all over the place. And people are looking good."

Back at 110 Livingston, the files, office equipment and personal belongings that were abandoned over the last month and a half would make for a curious archaeological study.

Most of the offices still have desks, computers, copy and fax machines, file cabinets and phones; a few look as if whoever worked there left for a fire drill and might return at any moment. Outside the chancellor's office on the 10th floor, a sign that reads "To teach is to touch someone's life forever" has been left behind, as have several plants, a time clock and a dictionary, opened to the page that starts with digestive and ends with diluter.

A few rooms away, a half-full water cooler remains outside the deputy chancellor's office, along with a refrigerator containing two bottles of salad dressing and some fruit cups. Bound minutes from years of Board of Education meetings are stacked everywhere; Margie Feinberg, a spokeswoman for Klein, said they might end up at Teachers College of Columbia University. There are also boxes and cabinets jammed with files, some labeled "Tweed," others, "Shred."

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