By Alex Davidson
A new proposal by the state legislative task force charged with suggesting replacements for community school boards might alleviate overcrowding in Queens and allow for more schools to be built throughout the borough.
The final report of the Task Force on Community School District Governance Reform, released Feb. 19, recommends the creation of 32 Community District Education Councils to govern in place of the boards, which were officially abolished under a new state law that will take effect June 30.
Under the proposal, the councils will have the power of capacity planning —- the ability to determine how many seats and buildings are needed to accommodate the students who want to attend public schools. This is especially important in Queens because it has the most overcrowded schools in the citywide public education system.
“For parents, this is very significant,” said Terri Thomson, co-chair of the state legislative task force composed of politicians and civic and business leaders, at a news conference in Manhattan. “Right now no one has this responsibility. The school boards do, but they haven’t been using it.”
Thomson said school boards are now responsible for the zoning of the schools in their districts, but few have used that power to study the future number of students or number of buildings need to house them.
She did say, however, that the construction of new schools will be a last resort.
The education councils will be composed of eight parents elected by the parents of students who attend a public school within the specific district. One parent, according to the proposal, must be a parent of a child with special needs.
There will also be two business, civic or community members appointed by the borough president and one high school senior appointed by a district superintendent on the council.
A council for District 75, the citywide district serving special needs students, will also be established, giving parents formal representation for the first time, Thomson said. The councils will also be able to provide comment to the mayor and chancellor before collective bargaining negotiations on provisions in union contracts that affect school’s quality of life — a power school boards do not have.
Legislators and civic and business leaders announced their proposal just weeks after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein released other reform plans to lessen the influence of the city’s 32 individual schools districts in favor of 10 larger, regional districts.
State Assemblyman Steve Sanders (D-Manhattan), co-chairman of the task force, said the group made its proposal simultaneously but not in response to the mayor’s reforms. He said he thinks the task force’s plan to maintain the integrity of the 32 individual districts would not interfere with Bloomberg and Klein’s plans to centralize the decision-making process.
The task force was assembled following a June 14, 2002 law that revamped the entire New York City School Governance system. The legislation, signed by Gov. George Pataki, called for the elimination of local community school boards and mandated that the task force come up with an alternative to represent the 32 school districts.
Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Far Rockaway) said she and other legislators will now share the proposal for the councils with their constituents and gather feedback. She said she views the councils as “beefed-up” versions of school boards.
Pheffer said she hopes state legislation will be passed in the next few months to make the education councils a reality. The Department of Justice will have the final say in any of the changes made by the state legislature.
She said she would like to see the legislation completed by the end of April “so we have some time to digest the material before the new school year.” Pheffer added that she hopes the more than 50 hours spent listening to the public during hearings was reflected in the plan.
“Now it’s time to allow for public comment,” she said.
State Sen. Frank Padavan, chairman of the Senate’s majority task force on school governance, said he was hopeful the Legislature would move quickly to implement the proposal.
“I support the recommendations and goals established by the task force, especially those regarding the importance of providing meaningful participation by parents and maintaining the integrity and boundaries of the existing 32 school districts,” he said.
Thomson said that despite all the recent changes and studies with the public education system, the focus should remain on the students’ education.
“I think it’s everyone’s hope that in the end, we’ll build a better education system for our children,” Thomson said.
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156