By Chelsia Rose Marcius, NY Times | http://nyti.ms/A6XJow
Feb. 28, 2012, 5:57 p.m. | Updated 9:02 p.m. :: Members of the New York State Assembly and Senate, parents and education advocates called for state legislation on Tuesday to give local school advisory panels the power to veto school co-locations in their districts.
The proposed legislation would ensure that no school could be co-located with another, reconfigured or moved to a different site unless the community education council for the area approves it.
The legislation has not yet been introduced, but Assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem has said he would sponsor a bill.
Councilman Robert Jackson of Manhattan said the legislation would address a “boiling point” in the relationship between school communities and the Department of Education. The issue of where to place schools, school closings and the addition of charter schools has frequently put parents, teachers and advocates at loggerheads with Education Department officials and charter school networks.
“At the last PEP meeting, they had proposed to close so many schools, and co-location in many of the schools,” Mr. Jackson said of the Feb. 9 Panel for Education Policy meeting. “And so this is another boiling point where people are angry, frustrated in seeing mayoral control not working because closing schools is not the answer; fixing them is, and that’s what this is about.”
Advocates of the legislation announced their intention at a rally and news conference in front of the Department of Education headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street on Tuesday morning. The United Federation of Teachers was one of the organizers of the event.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union, said a bill would empower community representatives to block any location proposals that it does not think is in the interests of the community.
“To tell another community we’re going to force another school into your building where it does not fit — this is not about saying, ‘oh, well perhaps we might need some space,’ ” he said. He said this has been a “hot bed issue” for years, but frustration among parents and local elected officials has been building.
The proposed legislation would put power into the hands of the community education councils — locally elected bodies that were created after the mayor gained control of the public schools to provide oversight of local issues. However, the councils have basically been toothless in that they can only act in an advisory capacity and can be overruled by the central administration.
Still, even that has been a problem. Last spring’s community education elections were a near fiasco. Parents said the Education Department’s office of family and community engagement did little to recruit parents, with only 500 people applying for 325 positions. Eligible candidates and longtime members seeking re-election were left off lists. Print voter guides were distributed with incomplete candidate profiles, while online the full information was password-protected.
Following those complaints, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott postponed the elections and later named Jesse Mojica as the executive director of family and community engagement, a new cabinet-level position.
In October, the borough presidents of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn, as well as the city’s public advocate, recommended modifications to both state law and city procedure that they say will ease parents’ frustration with the community education council elections.
Parents’ anger over the co-location process and other Education Department decision-making was on full display at that Feb. 9 meeting when the Panel for Educational Policy, the citywide advisory board, voted to close or truncate 23 public schools. Fred Baptiste, a parent at P.S. 161 The Crown, one of the schools that will have its middle school grades removed, said parents have been disenfranchised.
“All this policy process does is tell us that the mayor knows how to better educate our children, and that needs to stop,” said Mr. Baptiste at the rally. “Apparently, policy is not about educating children, but rather it’s about trying to maintain some kind of legacy on the part of the mayor.”
Frank Thomas, a Department of Education spokesman, said in an e-mail message Tuesday night: “These issues were carefully considered by the Legislature and no doubt will be again when the school governance law sunsets. That is the proper time and forum for this conversation. That said, more than 700 schools across the City already share space and we would strongly oppose efforts that jeopardize our ability to continue providing parents a variety of great options.”
Norman Frazier, 61, of Brownsville, Brooklyn, was one of hundreds of people who turned out on Feb. 16 to voice their disapproval of the proposal to co-locate a new Success Academy charter school with Junior High School 50 John D. Wells in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“I was there, I yelled my guts out,” said Mr. Frazier, who attended Tuesday’s rally. “I’m sick of it and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where we go from here.”
An earlier version of this post contained incorrect information about the number of co-located schools in the city.
Chelsia Rose Marcius is a freelance writer.