Saturday, September 26, 2009

Missed Opportunity at CEC 24 Debate by Denis Deck - Queens Chronicle

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Parents and community members in attendance at the Community Education Council 24 meeting at P.S. 49 in Middle Village on Tuesday came with questions and concerns, but didn’t get to see the education debate they hoped for.

Although Republican candidate for City Council District 30 Tom Ognibene and current Democratic incumbent Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) were both present, Crowley left after a brief statement to the crowd, citing she and Ognibene had another forum to attend in Woodhaven.

“Education has been a main focus since I took office,” Crowley said. “I hope to continue what I’ve started for the past nine months over the next four years.”

Ognibene opted to stay and field questions from the CEC board and the community.

CEC 24 president Nick Comianni requested that all questions be limited to the area of education. The primary concern on the minds of parents in attendance was the overcrowding of school classrooms. Strategy for reduction of class size was questioned by some who fear that programs like Gifted and Talented and Pre-K are being marginalized to make room for more standard classes, while others complained of uneconomical use of space in design for new schools like P.S. 7 in Elmhurst.

New school superintendent Madelene Tuab-Chan recognized “Space is of the essence. The only solution (for overcrowding) is re-zoning.” Crowley’s chief of staff, Lydon Sleeper, fielded questions on the councilwoman’s behalf. He agreed with Tuab-Chan, “We’ve worked closely with Beacon program parents. They know best. We’re seeing how zoning fits and making sure it’s fair to all areas.”

Ognibene’s stance is different. “The most important thing is finding areas to build new schools.” He referenced his past as the first councilman for the 30th District from 1991 to 2001, saying, “We didn’t rely on the SCA (School Construction Authority) to find areas for schools. We made contact with brokers and we’d find areas for schools.” He cited examples like P.S. 28 and the land acquisition for an addition to P.S. 87, although nearly 10 years later he says it is regrettable that construction still hasn’t begun.

Comianni offered an opportunity to Sleeper to speak about what Crowley’s office has done to find potential school sites recently. Sleeper started to mention that Grover Cleveland High School is being looked into but Comianni quickly interrupted him, “No, I found that, what have you found?”

“Nothing, yet, but we’re open to suggestions,” Sleeper replied.

While Crowley had proudly touted recent endorsements from organizations like the United Federation of Teachers and Council on Supervisors and Administrators in her statement earlier that evening, Ognibene had to defend his own endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg, whom he ran against in 2005.

“CECs have been at odds with the mayor,” David Quintana said, a Community Board 10 member who was in the audience. “Bloomberg has failed us and has lied to us. Why are you endorsing him?”

“He’s head and shoulders above his competition,” Ognibene said. “Overall he’s the best candidate for mayor.” He admits he’s had disagreements with Bloomberg but said that he also has a personal relationship with him and can easily address issues and concerns.

Bloomberg had Ognibene removed from the GOP ballot in his 2005 run for mayor due to an inadequate number of petition signatures. Ognibene had expected to get the Queens County Republican Party endorsement for that race and has gotten Bloomberg’s for this one.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson from Crowley’s office, Meredith Burnak, called the CEC ‘debate’ unorthodox and inappropriate. “This was Comianni using education for political ends and an abuse of power.” Burnak said that no other area council candidates have been asked by the CEC to hold a debate on education.

Crowley’s office wasn’t able to say with certainty when the next scheduled debate with Ognibene is, but promises there will be at least three more before the Nov. 3 elections.