By Dustin Brown
A large crowd gathered at PS 156 Saturday morning to hear public officials outline their ideas for revitalizing Laurelton — from its schools to its stores — at a town hall meeting organized by the Concerned Citizens of Laurelton.
Kimberly Francis, the civic group’s president, described the meeting at the 137th Avenue school as the next level of outreach for the organization, which emerged out of the community’s grass-roots fight against the area’s over-saturation of group homes.
“It’s time now that we reach out to the elected officials,” Francis said. “Now we need a little help to move us along even further.”
The event, moderated by Yvette Jackson of the Gotham Gazette, drew more than 150 spectators and featured a panel of seven: Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott; Robert Butts, the executive director of the Laurelton Local Development Corp.; Steve Green, a new instructional supervisor with the city Department of Education; Bob Brennan of the Long Island Rail Road; City Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton); Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-St. Albans); and Jerry LaMuro of the borough president’s office.
Walcott, himself a resident of Cambria Heights, described the mayor’s overhaul of the school system as a means of increasing accountability while focusing resources in the classroom.
“We want to make government more efficient with less resources,” he said. “What we’ve done is try to develop a more streamlined line of accountability.”
Although Walcott said he could not comment on a lawsuit filed to halt the school reorganization because of a gag order, he stressed that it is designed to add accessibility to parents.
“We’ve developed more access points for parents with this reform,” Walcott said, citing parent coordinators in each school, regional offices and a planned Internet and voice-mail informational system as new resources for parents.
In response to a question about why such disparities exist among Queens high schools — specifically citing Springfield Gardens vs. Townsend Harris — Green said that the problem must be tackled by bringing in more resources while also changing attitudes.
“With Springfield Gardens, we’re going to raise the level of expectations because we know students can get there,” he said.
But Walcott, noting the disparity between the community’s relatively high incomes and comparably low test scores, said the issue would require some soul-searching for the community.
“It’s not just Springfield Gardens vs. Townsend Harris. It’s the south Queens schools vs. the north Queens schools,” Walcott said. “We have to have a long discussion about schools in south Queens. … We as a community have to get more engaged within our schools to say what we will accept and what we will not accept.”
Butts offered his own ideas for the community’s youth, highlighting the revitalization of Merrick Boulevard as a way to bring more employment into the community — especially for teenagers seeking their first jobs.
“Business strips that are revitalized hire about 80 percent of people who work there from the community,” Butts said. “There’s a lot of really good business that can be brought to Merrick Boulevard.”
Butts’ organization is working to establish a business improvement district on Merrick Boulevard, an idea Sanders also strongly advocated.
“We’re the eighth-richest council district in New York City. We don’t look like it, my friends,” Sanders said. “There’s no way that this community should not own its stores.”
The Laurelton Local Development Corp. is holding a seminar June 17 with presenters from Coca-Cola, York College and the Greater Jamaica Development Corp. to inform entrepreneurs how to get money to support their business ventures.
Sanders said he supports a commuter tax, stock transfer tax and surcharge on the highest-earning New Yorkers to raise more revenue as the city grapples with its budget crisis, but he strongly opposes a hike in property taxes.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.