2000-10-28 / Columnists

School Scope 1028

The fighter jocks that I worked with during my years on the USS FDR had a saying that must have somehow carried over into my psyche. They had lots of maxims, but the prime one was "always honor a threat." In their world of high-speed life or death, that meant that they never turned their back on a threat. To do so would surely mean getting a missile up their "six."

It is because I believe that maxim fervently, that I write this column.

It is always disconcerting for a columnist to be told by the paper’s editor that somebody is contemplating suing him for defamation of character. It is disconcerting, but often not life threatening because columns are comment and, as such, are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution as "protected comment."

This is not the first time that I have been threatened by a suit (some of them have actually been carried out), and it will probably not be the last. When a person undertakes to tell his version of the truth, it often angers those who do not want that "truth" to see the light of day.

Absence the presence of "actual malice," it is clear that one’s opinions are allowed as long as it is understood that it is opinion that is being offered.

The threat of a lawsuit takes on a different flavor, however, when the columnist works at another job and that threat comes from his boss.

Just last week, John McLoughlin, the editor of The Wave, told me that Matt Bromme, the superintendent of District 27 schools, had called to tell him that he was contemplating talking to a lawyer with an eye to suing me for defamation.

He was angry, according to John, that I wrote that the conventional wisdom in the district was that Bob Spata was removed from MS 180 by Bromme because Spata was running for president of the union and Bromme was supporting the faction now in power.

According to the editor, Bromme, as superintendent, said that he cannot support any faction in the election and that I had defamed him by saying that he supported the faction in power against Spata.

I can understand that a superintendent cannot support one faction over another and if the statement in my column compromised Bromme in any way, I have to apologize to him. That was not my intent.

One must remember, however, that Bromme was the district representative for the union before becoming superintendent. He more recently hired two men who work for the union as consultants to the district and hired their wives as full time employees of the district. He has hired many people from outside the district in administrative positions and those people seem to have close ties to the union as well.

One must remember also that Bob Spata was not taken out of MS 180 by Ed Stancik, but by Bromme and, at the time this column is being written, he remains out of the school even though the dean who was involved in the incident has been back to work for some weeks.

[Spata, despite the fact that he was removed from his school, was recently named "New York State Principal of the Year" by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. If Franz Kafka was not involved in that selection, he certainly should have been.]

All of that sets up a presumption in the minds of many people that Bromme remains close to the union even as a superintendent.

If that is not true, then Bromme deserves an apology from this column. If it is true, then the people deserve some sort of explanation from Bromme.

There are always lots of rumors flitting around any bureaucracy and the schools are no exception.

There were even some rumors about me late in the summer. One rumor had it that I had stopped writing my column because of Bromme’s distaste for my writing. Those who believed that did not know that I generally stop writing my School Scope column during the summer months. The fact that my column resumed in September should dispel that rumor.

The other "rumor" had it that I had such close ties to the past administration that I could not be subjective about this one.

I want to dispel that rumor as well. Those who know me and those who have read this column regularly for some time know that I am friendly with Joel Rosenzweig, the assistant to the superintendent under Brenda Isaacs. I remain friendly with him into his retirement. That does not mean that he was always happy about what I wrote, nor that I wrote my columns in such a way as to keep him friendly. He always understood that.

I was not friendly with Isaacs to the same extent. It was more a "professional relationship" than a friendly one. I often took pot shots at her and her administration as I did with past administrations going back to Marvin Aaron, the man who bought his PhD. None of them ever threatened a lawsuit because of what I wrote.

In fact, I thought that I had the same sort of professional relationship with Bromme. When we both attended a conference in New Orleans a few years ago, we had dinner together and discussed many educational topics. We were very close in our ideas and in our ideals. At present, however, he will not even speak with me. As we passed at the school board meeting last week I said hello, but he passed by me without a word.

Even Dr. Beverly Hall, who told me that her husband would have "punched me in the nose" had he been present when we were introduced, and whom I excoriated (with reason) in my column, understood that it was my right to say what I did say in this column.

Newspaper columns are not often written to cheer on the status quo. They are written to present the writer’s opinion on important matters of the day, matters of importance to the community.

That is why the First Amendment protects them. There is an old newspaper sentiment that says "never start a fight with a person who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the roll." It is apt in this connection.

Bromme and his minions have recently started penning a column of their own in this paper. They call it "Focus on 27: Community School District News and Notes." Perhaps Peter Parrella, who was hired last February and is listed as the district’s "Public Relations Coordinator", writes it. Perhaps the person listed as the author writes his or her own column. In any case, those columns are disingenuous at best.

They, of course, have the right to give their opinion, just as I do. What they write, however, is presented as facts, not as opinion, and therein lies the difference.

On October 14, Bromme wrote, "When we assumed the leadership of the district, there was no comprehensive plan to help children meet the standards for promotion."

That is not even close to being true. In fact, all districts with failing schools have been required for at least three years to write a District Comprehensive Education Plan (DCEP). That plan was written and implemented by the past administration. Did it work? Not as well as intentioned.

In fact, under Bromme, the schools appear to have done worse in testing this past year than they did under the past administration the year before.

Had Bromme written that the past administration’s DCEP was inadequate, that would have been his opinion. That he wrote that there was no plan is different.

In the same article, he writes, "In one year, we have begun the process to build three new schools…" The fact is, all of those schools were planned and discussed during the past administration.

Later in the article, Bromme writes, "…For several years the district office was an unfriendly environment to community leaders and parents. The district leadership chose not to reach out to elected officials and community organizations. We have and will continue to reach out to all groups…"

The fact is that politicians and other "community activists" continually reached out to the district for favors and special treatment for those who were in favor. The district often rebuffed them. I guess that is what an "unfriendly environment" means.

In any case, it is definitely déclassé for one administration to knock the previous administration in such a way.

It continued, however, on October 21. In the "Focus on 27" column of that date, executive assistant to the Superintendent Rose Molinelli wrote, "In an effort to meet the academic needs of all our children, District 27 has successfully implemented two special academies this calendar year. The Active Learning Prep school…. (and) the Superintendent’s Academy…" In fact, the ALPS program is several years old, having been started under the previous administration. The Superintendent’s Academy is the "Eight Plus" program for eighth grade holdovers that was conceptualized and funded by the chancellor. The district had very little to do with either one.

Later in the article, Molinelli praises both block program and the school’s gifted program at the same time that Bromme was telling a school board meeting that both might soon go.

"Individualized programming seems to me to be the way to go," Bromme told the school board and those in attendance. "When you have block programs you just lock kids in."

The block program is part of the middle school redesign process that every district in the city is now going through. It requires smaller components within schools, such as teams or clusters. It mandates that all the students in a class travel together for all of their classes.

Bromme’s individualized programming would do away with all of the work that had been completed in order to bring the redesign process to our school over the past several years. It would effectively end that program.

In addition, Bromme is applying for a magnet grant for several schools (MS 180 and PS 183 in Rockaway) that would effectively do away with the Astre, gifted, talented and chancellor’s magnet programs in those schools. The school board was obviously angered by the plan.

Under the new governance bill, however, it is the superintendent’s right to do what he wants despite board feelings.

If the teachers and staff of the district schools sometimes think they have somehow stepped into a twisted version of "The Music Man," it is no wonder.

Always honor a threat. Always check your six. That is good advice, not only in the world of jet jocks, but in the world of school politics as well. It is my opinion that more and more people involved with the schools will experience similar threats as time goes by.

It is not a good feeling and it will eventually do disservice to the schools in this district and those who toil mightily in them.

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