By Kathianne Boniello
With a ferocious debate over mayoral control of the city’s public schools taking center stage and budget cuts forcing school districts to tighten their belts, the state of education in Queens has been anything but quiet and peaceful.
Last week Borough President Helen Marshall did her best to assess the state of education at a nearly four-hour parents’ forum at Borough Hall, during which Queens’ top elected official took comments from dozens of parents and educators on how best to restructure the city’s school system.
The Feb. 27 forum was well attended by both the public and elected officials. Nearly 150 people turned out as well as state assembly members Audrey Pheffer (D-Rockaway Beach), William Scarborough (D-St. Albans), and Michael Cohen (D-Forest Hills), state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), and City Councilmen John Liu (D-Flushing) and David Weprin (D-Hollis).
Marshall, who presided over the lengthy forum with diligence, told the audience “we want to know your opinion on how our schools should be governed.” And she got it.
While some of the parents condemned local schools boards and the Board of Education as mismanaged and hopeless, the majority of parents attending appeared to be against mayoral control of the schools. Speakers attended from a range of Queens school districts, including District 24 in Glendale, District 25 in Flushing, District 27 in Ozone Park, District 28 in Forest Hills, District 29 in Rosedale and District 30 in Jackson Heights.
Marshall’s forum coincided with four days of public hearings by the City Council’s Education Committee on the question of mayoral control of public schools. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, like his predecessor Rudy Giuliani, would like to take charge of the city’s 1.1 million students and abolish the Board of Education.
J. Clifford Gadsen, an elderly man who served as a member of southeast Queens’ School Board 29 in 1979, told forum attendees that he was opposed to giving control of the city’s schools to Bloomberg.
“It’s hideous to think that all the people of New York City are going to hand over something that we worked for for years to a man who never even told us what he’s going to do,” Gadsen said as the audience nodded in agreement. “This is not another toy for him.”
Most of the speakers seemed to favor borough boards and keeping local school boards with some reforms. Many parents expressed the view that school boards should only be made up of parents with children currently enrolled in public schools.
Parents also voiced their concerns about school leadership teams and what many described as an unwelcoming environment in their children’s schools.
School leadership teams, an idea first developed by former Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, are school-based groups made up of school teachers, principals and parents, and were conceived as a way to get parents more involved in their children’s education.
One parent said “school leadership teams are not a part of the process,” while others said the groups are allowed to make decisions but those choices are often ignored by school leadership.
As Marshall, a former educator, listened to parents describe their difficulties in trying to be involved in the schools, she was angry.
“I don’t want to hear about a principal that doesn’t work with parents,” she said emphatically. “I don’t want to hear about a school that doesn’t welcome parents. We’re going to empower parents.”
Any decision on restructuring the system needs the approval of the state Legislature. At issue are a number of different choices including: expanding the current Board of Education from seven members to 11, giving proxy mayoral control by adding four more mayoral appointees; abolishing the board entirely; establishing individual borough boards of education; and either eliminating, keeping or reforming the city’s 32 local school districts.
Marshall, who testified early in the council’s hearings, favors keeping local school boards, and would like to see some form of mayoral control. But she said she needs a more specific proposal from Bloomberg before making a decision.
Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.