By Thomas Tracy
Claiming that Lafayette High School is suffering from a “perception problem,” members of Community Board 13’s Education and Library Committee gathered at the Benson Avenue school recently to focus on ways they could promote “all the good things” going on at the school. “We’re looking to discuss solutions, not problems,” said Committee Chair Sara Lee McWhite, who, at times, cut off meeting attendees when asked about the alleged crimes that have occurred in the school over the last year, as well as the student’s poor graduation rate. Some of these questions came from Mark Treyger, a spokesman for Assemblymember Bill Colton. Colton announced last year that he wanted to close down the school all together and build smaller schools. Other questions that were addressed, but not at any great length, were from Steve Chung, the president of the United Chinese Association of Brooklyn, who charged that Asian students who said that they were attacked were not listened to by the school administration. “I’ve been told that these kids had been assaulted inside the school and robbed,” said Chung. “They’ve reported the incident to the school but the report falls into the black hole.” Allen Siegel, principal of Lafayette High School, who hosted the meeting, said that he would look into the allegations, and reminded Chung that the school is connected to a “language line” that can translate for any student who does not use English as their primary language. Workers on the other end of the language line are fluent in Asian languages, as well as the different dialects used. “If any of our students, no matter what they speak, need to come forward and tell us something, they have access to translators,” Siegel said. “If our translators can’t help them, then we use a language line for an instant translation.” Siegel told Chung that if he knows any students that believe his administrators have “slipped up” to “let me know.” Treyger explained that the reports made to Colton’s office are “not perception.” “That’s reality,” he said, adding that some of the harrowing incidents reported have prompted the U.S. Justice Department to launch an investigation. “That’s absolutely troubling,” Treyger said. Treyger asked to “bring victims” to the next committee meeting. “They have a lot to say,” he said. “Mr. Siegel has done a great job building up the school,” McWhite told committee members, who said again that the meeting was not designed to talk about the alleged problems in the school and “giving the press more to feed on.” “We’re looking for concrete suggestions about what we can do to improve the school,” she said. Advertising the all the good things that are happening at the school, such as the students’ performance of Bye Bye Birdie on May 19th and 20th and the insightful school newsletter filled with “news and views from a students perspective” is a good start. Siegel said that parents, as well as community members could always come into the school, located at 2630 Benson Avenue, to learn about all of the upcoming events happening at the school. “The school is always open,” he said. According to the city Department of Education’s (DOE) annual report card for Lafayette’s 2003-2004 school year, major crimes in the school increased from 7.2 cases per 1,000 students during the 2002-2003 school year to 10 incidents, of which seven were crimes against people and three were property crimes. These figures were higher than those for similarly sized schools, which reported 6.6 major crimes during the 2003-2004 school year. When looking at non-major crimes, Lafayette recorded 24 during the 2003-2004 school year, which was up from 13.1 the year before and significantly higher than the 18.5 incidents recorded in similarly sized schools throughout the city. During the 2003-2004 school year, police were called to Lafayette 62 times for non-criminal incidents, which was up from 34.4 the prior school year. The 62 incidents exceeded the 56 recorded at similarly sized schools. With 74.4 per 1,000 students, suspensions were also up at Lafayette in 2004. The school reported 44.9 suspensions in 2003. Late last year, the school was recently added to the city’s growing list of “impact” schools, which are flooded with police officers. Committee members contend that any alleged crimes occurring in the school were “not different” than any other school in the area. While crime increased at Lafayette in 2004, the school also saw a jump in the number of students passing the English and math Regents exams, according to the report. KRISS CASH WENT TO HYNES: To hear Arnie Kriss criticize the man he’s running against this year, Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes, you wouldn’t expect to find Kriss on the list of donors to Hynes’s campaign fund. Yet it’s there at least three times: Kriss made a contribution in 1998, when Hynes was running for governor, and another one in 1999 for $500. (Kriss thought that donation was to help retire his debt from the gubernatorial campaign, but it actually went toward Hynes’s 2001 reelection.) In October 1990 Kriss forked over another $150. Why? Kriss’s spokesman e-mailed, “When Arnie made his contributions, he was unaware of the problems in the (D.A.’s) office. It was not until January of 2002 that Arnie realized there was an ethical problem in Mr. Hynes’s office, when the former Kings County Democratic leader (Howard Golden) was hired, and his belief was reinforced in July of 2002 when he found out Mr. Hynes was taking campaign contributions from the assistant district attorneys on staff. “Thereafter Arnie, along with other former A.D.A.s, came to the conclusion that Mr. Hynes had to be replaced, and discovered that the office’s performance in comparison to Hynes’s predecessor, Elizabeth Holtzman, and the other D.A. offices in the city was performing poorly.” *** WHEELCHAIRS ON THE BEACH: Our small item questioning a plan for wheelchair access to Coney Island beach generated several responses from readers. We’d wondered how someone in a wheelchair could negotiate the beach upon reaching the end of the ramp, which the Parks Department plans to build with funding procured by Assemblywoman Adele Cohen and Rep. Jerry Nadler. The answer, according to column reader Ed Ravin, is an all-terrain wheelchair such as the ones used at some public beaches in Long Island and elsewhere. Sounds like a good idea, but that isn’t the Parks Department’s plan for Coney Island. Instead, four paths will initially be built, ranging from 160 to 220 feet. That will get wheelchairs (and strollers) halfway across the beach. The state Department of Environmental Conservation will not allow construction any closer to the water, but the Parks Department figures halfway there is better than nothing. What about allowing people to swap their wheelchairs for an all-terrain version, which Ravin says can now be purchased for $2,500? One Parks official informed us, “On two occasions in the last 10 years, we spent small fortunes buying all-terrain wheelchairs. We housed them at our office at West 25th Street and the Boardwalk and we put up signs in the area alerting the public to their existence. We had virtually no takers. We do still like the idea and might consider buying them again.” *** BACK DOOR TO BROOKLYN BENCH: Some folks want voters and not Democratic Party insiders to pick Supreme Court judges, and have suggested primary elections such as we have for Civil Court. But there’s a way for party insiders to pick Civil Court judges as well. Here’s how: First, you need an incumbent Civil Court judge up for reelection. We’ll use Mickey Morganstern as an example. (We just, um, picked her out of the blue.) She’ll likely win the Democratic primary in September (perhaps without an opponent), guaranteeing a victory in November’s general election over a hapless Republican/Conservative candidate. Then, a couple of weeks after the primary, Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the county Democratic leader, will conduct his annual secret telephone poll of the other 41 Democratic district leaders to see whom they’re supporting for the two Supreme Court vacancies this year. Norman will announce the two phone-poll winners to the very same district leaders at their September meeting. (You might ask, Why conduct an advance phone poll instead of just having the leaders vote at the meeting? More on that in our next item.) Let’s say Morganstern is named one of the Supreme Court nominees. She would then need to be replaced on the general-election Civil Court ballot. Who picks her replacement? Not the voters who just pulled the lever for her in the primary. Rather, an obscure body called the Democratic county committee. Who’s on the county committee in Morganstern’s district? Friends and relatives of the folks who run the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. And speaking of relatives of T.J. club leaders, we bring you one Kenny Sherman, whose mother just happens to be club leader Roberta Sherman, a Democratic district leader. Kenny Sherman, through no fault of his own, might have a hard time getting elected in an open primary. But if county committee members loyal to his mom and other T.J. club leaders were doing the electing, Sherman would win without knocking on a single door, handing out a single flier, or raising a single dollar. We should note that this scenario may well not happen this year because Morganstern has a lot of competition for elevation to Supreme Court. Councilman Lew Fidler, a district leader who has his own club but also has influence in the T.J. club, has already committed to supporting Civil Court Judge Loren Baily-Schiffman for one of the two openings. To diversify his ticket, he’ll probably pick a black person for the other position. Morganstern is white, so she—and hence Kenny Sherman as well—may have to wait for another year. But we don’t doubt that Sherman’s year will come. “I have known Kenny Sherman for a long time,” Fidler e-mailed us, “and believe that he would make an excellent judge should that opportunity present itself.” *** NORMAN’S PHONE POLL SURVIVES: A handful of Democratic district leaders tried and failed this month to end the secret telephone poll method of Supreme Court judge selection we mentioned in the previous item. Only nine of the 42 district leaders supported a proposal to have the leaders conduct an open vote to decide the Democratic Supreme Court nominees, rather than have one yes-or-no vote on the slate announced by county leader Clarence Norman after his unverifiable telephone poll. One of the champions of the reform, Park Slope’s Alan Fleishman, called the current system “the most nondemocratic way you could possibly do this.” He said the reform plan was rejected in part because many leaders had given proxies to Norman, who favors the status quo. (By the way, Fleishman objects to the proxy system as well, believing leaders should only be able to vote in person.) But proxies or no proxies, the motion would have failed. Too many powerful district leaders benefit from the current system because it centralizes the power, and they are near the center, i.e., Norman. As one observer of judicial politics explained, district leaders such as Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson, and Councilman Al Vann “can threaten or leverage their position with the county leader and make people judges. So when we come to election time, they can say [to Norman], ‘Look, I control these six leaders, and if you don’t nominate [a certain candidate] for Supreme, we’ll run someone against you for leader.” One way Norman retains his leadership is by doling out Supreme Court judgeships as favors to the folks who can protect him. So long as Hikind gets the Orthodox Jew of his choice elevated to Supreme Court every year, Hikind will support Norman. (By one count, an Orthodox Jew has become a Supreme Court judge in each of the last seven years.) Norman maintains that the slate he announces is a simple reflection of the will of the other district leaders. But it is unclear why that will couldn’t be ascertained through a more transparent process. *** D.A. RACE UPDATE: One observer of the Brooklyn district attorney race said none of the current challengers to incumbent Joe Hynes has the right package to beat him, but “if you could composite Mark Peters and John Sampson, you’d really have something.” Peters has a strong résumé but lacks the political connections and savvy of Sampson, the source noted. What about attorney Paul Wooten? His competition doesn’t take his candidacy seriously because the vast majority of the money in his campaign fund came from a $65,000 loan from himself a day before the last reporting deadline. The loan made it appear Wooten had raised over $70,000, but in fact his two fundraisers were sparsely attended, another source noted. Wooten’s camp has boasted of substantial support among elected officials. “Wooten has a relationship with these elected officials because he was their attorney,” said the observer, who is backing another candidate. “But they understand that a man with $10,000 is not winning.” Which may be why only Councilman Al Vann and Assemblywoman Annette Robinson have committed to actually endorsing Wooten. A boroughwide race can cost upwards of $1 million. As of late March, Hynes had raised over $500,000, Mark Peters had pulled in about $450,000, State Senator John Sampson over $400,000, and Arnie Kriss over $300,000. Sandra Roper had raised nothing, jeopardizing her ability to collect enough signatures to make the ballot. In 2001, Roper was on omnibus petitions with other insurgent candidates, but she might not be able to piggyback on such petitioning operations this time because there won’t be as many. *** YASSKY HELPS LOCKED-IN WORKERS: While other members of the City Council busy themselves with bills to co-name streets for little-known dead constituents, David Yassky continues to introduce legislation addressing real-world problems. His latest effort is a bill to deter stores from locking in nighttime workers. Media investigations have found supermarkets and other stores not infrequently lock their doors at night, imprisoning employees whose shifts have ended until a manager shows up in the morning to free them. In some cases the workers’ only possible escape is through a fire door, but they are told they’d be fired if they use it when there’s no emergency. In other cases, even the fire doors are locked. Incredibly, even after well-publicized fatal blazes featuring locked fire doors, the fine remains just $500. One wonders what the City Council has been doing besides cutting ribbons all these years. Yassky’s bill, introduced April 19, would increase inspections and fines. A first violation would rise from $500 to $5,000, and repeat offenders would have to pay up to $20,000. The only thing missing from Yassky’s bill is compensation for locked-in workers. Perhaps they could get a percentage of the fines, or overtime pay for the hours they were held against their will. *** MILLMAN HOPS ON REFORM WAGON: This is why Assemblyman Joan Millman doesn’t much care for this column: Every time she endorses reforming the state government (suddenly a popular notion among Albany veterans), we feel obligated to mention how she bristled in 2002 when gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo called the legislature dysfunctional, worthless, and in need of a massive shake-up. In her latest newsletter, Millman declares, “It’s no secret—Albany needs serious reform.” She cheers “the Assembly’s sweeping new reforms [which] will begin making our state government more open, accountable and responsive.” That’s what Cuomo was talking about three years ago. *** TIDBITS: Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes skipped the April candidates forum hosted by the Brooklyn Young Democrats, but asked to be invited back. Brooklynites are still waiting for Hynes to appear alongside his six challengers… …One of the activists fighting Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards proposal, Patti Hagan, said Assemblyman Roger Green, a Ratner project supporter, has been doing a spot-on Claude Raines over the last six months or so. “He’s gone into the witness protection program since he got reelected,” Hagan observed. “He doesn’t show up at any kind of meetings or forums on any subject.” …The “John O’Hara vs. Joe Hynes” story (the illegal voter vs. the Brooklyn district attorney) has now been covered as far away as New Zealand. A newspaper columnist in that country just penned a heavily propagandized, error-ridden, pro-O’Hara account of the two men’s 11-year-old saga… …Mark Peters scheduled a press conference for April 21 in downtown Brooklyn to formally declare his candidacy for Brooklyn district attorney. Also, Councilman David Yassky and D.A. candidate Arnie Kriss held a press conference to call for full videotaping of police interrogations. We asked Yassky if that means he’s endorsing Kriss. “I’m endorsing his terrific idea to require that custodial interrogations be videotaped,” Yassky said. He elaborated, “Just like DNA testing, when you have technology that makes sure we’re getting the right guy instead of the wrong one, there’s no reason not to do it. This way you can see the whole course of the interrogation…We now know that people confess falsely. People crack under the circumstances.” …Virtually all of the elected officials who attended the 27th anniversary lunch of Lambda Independent Democrats, Brooklyn’s gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender Democratic club, had an obvious reason for attending. Either they represented liberal neighborhoods (Rep. Major Owens, Rep. Jerry Nadler, Assemblyman Jim Brennan, Assemblywoman Joan Millman, etc.) or need campaign help this year or next (Councilwomen Yvette Clarke and Tish James, Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, District Attorney Joe Hynes). The lone exception was Councilman Domenic Recchia, who represents Coney Island, Bensonhurst, and Gravesend, where gay rights is about 11th on residents’ top 10 priorities. *** Reach Brooklyn Politics at (718) 399-3693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.