2002-11-23 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

I called the District 27 office to find out what cuts had been made to district office staff to cover the Chancellor’s mandate that there be a ten percent cut across the board from the DO’s. I didn’t even get to speak with anybody who could answer the question. I was advised to call Margie Feinberg, a PR flack for the Department of Education.

I did. I spoke with a nameless assistant who took my question and told me that somebody would get back to me as soon as possible.

When Kevin Ortiz did call back, he told me that the plans have been submitted by the district to the chancellor, but that no decisions have been made as yet, so he couldn’t tell me the superintendent’s recommendations.

When I asked him if the people had a right to know the superintendent’s thinking on this important matter, he told me that they did not, that they would find out when the plans are finalized.

He also told me that there were only three people at the board answering media calls and that they had to "prioritize" their callbacks.

"We can’t always get back in a timely manner," he said.

When I asked him why I sometimes got no callback at all, not even an untimely one, he hung up on me.

So much for the "transparent" administration" that Chancellor Klein spoke about when he first took office.

It has been clear for the past year that the people at the new Department of Education do not want taxpayers to know what is going on in its schools unless that agency can control the information that is released.

Why it should be necessary to call a central office to find out such simple information as what slots a district is cutting in its new budget is beyond me.

Any number of people, from Sandy Brawer, the district operations manager to Marty Barr, the district’s whatever, to deputy superintendent Marty Weinstein to Matt Bromme himself could provide that information. I know that they have been ordered not to speak to the media and that it is not their fault that they won’t (can’t) talk with me, but that makes it even more senseless.

There are so many education questions that have to be answered that involve the local schools or the district yet the central agency is the only agency that is allowed to answer questions.

That means I have to call central and somebody at central has to call somebody at the district, who has to call them back with the information so that they can call me. If they call me.

What foolishness.

People have an absolute right to know what is going on in their schools. The Department of Education apparently thinks that it is its job to keep people from that information.

Just last week, a parent of a PS 114 student called to say that his child had received one of the new elementary school report cards

Besides the fact that it was almost impossible to understand because an A was no longer the best grade and F was no longer failing. The standards level the child has met is important, but most parents have no idea what standards mean and less idea about the reason for the numerical designations.

His child got a C in one of those subjects, which means "Consistently meets standards," and an O in another, which means "Often meets standards." The parent has problems with understanding just what those mean, especially in light of the fact that his child does not take many of the subjects in which designations were given.

His child received levels (I don’t want to call them grades any longer), in music, health, computers and science. The only problem being, however, that the child does not take any of those subjects this year.

Science is an important subject and the state mandates a certain number of units of that subject in every grade. Students in the fifth grade at PS 114, however, take no science.

"The homeroom teacher is supposed to teach it, but she does not ever do it," I was told. "The teacher is trying to get a parent volunteer to teach Science, but has so far been unsuccessful."

"The kids were told they were going to get computers," the parent, who asked to remain anonymous because he was afraid that sanctions would be taken against his child for speaking out, told me. "So far, they have not had access to computers all year."

Why was a child at a district school given grades for some subjects that the child does not take? Why doesn’t the student have Science? Why does the student only have Spanish one time a week? Why doesn’t the student have art, music or health?

Inquiring minds such as mine wanted to know, so I called the school.

I was immediately referred to the Department of Education, but I called the district on the off-chance that somebody there might speak with me.

They referred me to the Department of Education.

I called. I spoke with a nameless clerk (she did not want to give me her name), who took my information and said that somebody would get back to me as soon as possible.

I am probably back in that old "Priority Game," and I will not hold my breath waiting for a callback from Kevin Ortiz (he probably will never speak with me again) or Margie Feinberg, who has been there the longest.

Last time I spoke with Margie it was about another issue at PS 114. The principal had a parent arrested for assaulting her and the parent had a different story to tell.

After five days of waiting, Margie did call me back to tell me that "the case is a police matter and we will not comment."

A few weeks prior to that, I was working on the story of students, some as young as 16, who received a letter from the principal advising them that they were being expelled from Beach Channel High School because they were not making the proper progress towards graduation. The school would not talk with us about the situation. Neither would the Queens High School Office.

We called Margie.

After three days, she called back. Her entire comment was, "we made a mistake. That letter was meant for 18 and 19-year-olds." She would not discuss the issue any further.

Just last Thursday, I heard about a student at IS 53 who was badly beaten and transferred to Jamaica Hospital. I did not bother to call the school or the district. I called the Department of Education instead.

After several calls, and leaving recorded messages, I finally spoke to that nameless clerk. She took the information and said that somebody would get back to me as soon as possible. It has now been a week.

Isn’t that as "transparent" as hell?

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