Friday, May 29, 2009

Speakers Maul Mayoral Control by Ben Hogwood - Queens Chronicle

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At a meeting Thursday in Middle Village, JoAnn Berger, who has a child at P.S. 153 in Maspeth, said parents are given little consideration under the Department of Education’s current structure.

Should it stay or should it go?

According to most speakers at a town-hall style meeting held Thursday in Middle Village, mayoral control needs to be altered at the very least. Others said the best way to improve the school system would be to get rid of the man at the top — Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) held the meeting Thursday in the gymnasium of Our Lady of Hope to get input from the community on the policy, which gives City Hall control of the school system. Approved in 2002, the law will expire in June, and governance will revert to the old school board system, unless the state Legislature renews the measure, with or without amendment.

Most of those who spoke at least want changes in the legislation and some opposed it altogether.

“The type of complaint we get [from parents] is very simple,” said Frank Gulluscio, the district manager of Community Board 6, which includes Forest Hills and Rego Park. “They are talking about, ‘We want to be heard,’ and they just don’t want lip service that they are being heard.”

Gulluscio, a former teacher, is also running for City Council in District 32, representing Howard Beach, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill and other areas.

According to Dennis Walcott, the deputy mayor for education and community development, who attended the meeting, the DOE has been extremely effective in resolving parents’ issues. That has mainly been done by setting up parent coordinators, whose job responsibilities include acting as ombudsmen for parents with school-related concerns, maintaining contact with community organizations involved in school activities and creating a welcoming environment for parents.

But Joann Berger, who has a child at P.S. 153 in Maspeth, said parents get little or no response when they call. She doesn’t blame the coordinators; rather, she blames the structure of the system. The main problem, she said, is that all the power is centralized, and the people in that central office don’t know what is needed for each individual district.

“Everybody is waiting for an answer from somebody else,” she said.

Following up, Marge Kolb, the president of the President’s Council for School District 24, criticized the mayor and schools Chancellor Joel Klein for stripping power away from school superintendents.

The superintendents, Kolb said, are too often sent out of their districts, and as a result are out of touch with the area they are supposed to cover and are unable to accurately evaluate principal performance.

Like others, she said the Panel for Education Policy, the body responsible for approving measures put forward by the DOE, must be reorganized. The mayor appoints eight members to the panel, including the chancellor, who serves as the chairman. That gives him the clear majority of the 13-member board, whose other five members are appointed by each borough president. As a result, the board is widely considered little more than a rubber stamp for the mayor’s proposals.

Finally, Kolb criticized the level of education in the schools. While city students have improved in state standardized tests —something the mayor has latched onto as a reason for renewing mayoral control —Kolb said the increases are similar to those in the rest of the state.

“I don’t know where the mayor came up with the curriculum he purchased, but it wasn’t by talking to educators in my opinion,” she said.

The DOE, however, would likely disagree with that characterization. While the city is behind the rest of the state on standardized test scores, it is catching up. In 2006, the first year the state tested all grades between three and eight in English language arts, 57.6 percent of city students met or exceeded standards, compared to 67 percent of state students — a difference of 16.4 percent. In 2009, 68.8 percent of city students met or exceeding those standards, compared to 81.9 percent of state students —a difference of 13.1 percent.

Dianne Elmoznino, a math teacher at I.S. 93 in Ridgewood, was more critical of how the DOE picks school administrators. Rather than hiring educators, the DOE too often hires principals who have a background in management, she said.

Those leaders, she continued, are prone to run a school like a business, and as a result education suffers.

Robert Doocey, a member of the Juniper Park Civic Association’s executive board, said he flat-out opposes the current mayoral control policy, primarily because of the man in charge: the mayor.

Doocey said Bloomberg has shown a casual indifference to victims of the swine flu, children who had their bus service cut and elementary school students who have been left on buses at the end of the day or dropped off far from where they live. “There’s far too much power in the hands of one person. Far too much,” he said.

Bob Holden, the president of the JPCA, also directed much of his dissatisfaction with the school system at the mayor and Walcott.

“They just did, or do, as they please,” Holden said.

In particular, he criticized the DOE for its plans to build a 1,100-student high school in Maspeth, blocks away from two other schools. Despite heavy opposition from the community, as well as the district’s Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), the City Council approved the project. The School Construction Authority, the arm of the DOE which plans for school construction and expansion, purchased the site earlier this month for $16.25 million — more than the $15 million asking price. A spokesman for the DOE said the department could not comment on the negotiations or how the purchase price was determined for legal reasons.

The site, according to the SCA’s environmental impact statement, contains hazardous materials, including semi-volatile compounds, metals and petroleum-based materials. Those substances are associated with the historic presence of nearby vehicle service stations, dry cleaners, a salvage yard, industrial facilities and a former gas manufacturing facility. The SCA has plans to remediate the site, but a scientist working with the JPCA questions whether those efforts go far enough to make the area safe for students.

Crowley has requested the state Department of Environmental Conservation give a third party determination regarding the need for remediation.

Holden holds one party primarily responsible. “We need mayoral control? Baloney,” he said. “It’s a wonderful neighborhood to live in, but we keep getting dumped on by the City of New York.”

Tony Nunziato, another member of the JPCA executive board, was also critical of the mayor. “This is the second coming of Robert Moses,” he said. “New York is five boroughs and millions of people, not one person telling us what should be done.”

David Quintana, of Ozone Park, is totally opposed to mayoral control and wants to see the reinstatement of the local school board, “the most basic form of democracy we have,” he said.

Not everyone disapproved of mayoral control, though most who voiced support kept their statements short. Mario Henry, a retiree from the state Department of Labor, said one person has to be accountable for the system. “When 10 people are responsible, no one is responsible,” Henry said.

He added that if people aren’t happy with mayoral control, they should vote for somebody else.