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Council candidates spar at SE Queens education forum

Photo by Rich Bockmann
By Rich Bockmann

Candidates vying to succeed outgoing City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) sat in the hot seat earlier this week as they tried to show they had done their homework on city schools.

Six Democratic Council hopefuls gathered inside the steamy auditorium at the Campus Magnet complex in Cambria Heights Monday for an education-themed candidates forum hosted by Community District Education Council 29 and sponsored by TimesLedger Newspapers.

It was the first time Manny Caughman, Joan Flowers, Greg Mays, I. Daneek Miller, Sondra Peeden and Clyde Vanel were in the same room to elaborate on their plans for the 27th District, which covers St. Albans, Cambria Heights, Hollis and Jamaica.

Caughman, a community liaison in state Assemblyman William Scarborough’s (D-St. Albans) office, said if elected he would support a Council-approved panel of educators to select the city’s next schools chancellor. When asked about violence in schools, he said he was in favor of police using controversial body scanners as a way to stem violence that pours from the streets into school hallways.

“I will work hard to get this technology,” he said.

Flowers, an attorney who has worked with southeast Queens lawmakers, said she opposed school closings and co-locations and believed struggling schools were “set up to fail” by the Bloomberg administration.

She said she wants to hold the state to a court decision ordering it to pay billions of dollars in school funding owed to the city.

Mays, a Community Board 12 member and founder of the nonprofit A Better Jamaica, cited specific work he had done to partner senior citizens with children struggling to read at a low-performing school, and said he was in favor of a “solution-oriented approach” to raising student achievement.

“Less than 50 percent of third- and fifth-graders are passing their English Language Arts exams,” he said, explaining how he had used the city Department of Education’s report cards to identify struggling schools in neighboring School District 28. “It was pretty clear which schools were the high-performing ones and which schools were the low-performing ones.”

Miller, president of the Queens chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union for city bus drivers and mechanics, said he thought the biggest challenge the next Council member will face is reversing the disenfranchisement parents have experienced under the current administration.

He called school closings a “recipe for disaster” and said he favored reinstating a special district used in the pre-Bloomberg days that placed struggling schools under direct control of the chancellor.

Peeden, a management consultant who has worked in a number of Queens lawmakers’ offices, said she was opposed to one of the controversial hallmarks of the current administration.

“Networks make me nervous,” she said of the organizations that provide instructional and operational support to groups of schools. “There is absolutely no reason why a school here in southeast Queens should be partnered with a school in the Bronx.”

She said she favored instituting a “parent academy” that would help teach parents the ins and outs of the school system.

Attorney Clyde Vanel said he thought increasing parent participation was the most important aspect of improving schools and said he would focus on career-readiness and decreasing violence.

In organizing the forum, CDEC President Alicia Hyndman was looking for the Democratic candidates to demonstrate the specific knowledge they had of the city’s educational system, and in that regard she said she was impressed by what Peeden and Miller had to say.

Comrie stopped by to give the candidates a feel for the types of challenges they would face as a Council member.

Noting how hot it was, he said he had twice put an air conditioner for the school in the budget, but had been told it was too expensive.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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