2003-09-26 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach
From the Editor’s Desk

From the
Editor's Desk

Tweed Courthouse, we have a problem.

I don't think that the community school boards should plan on folding their tents and skulking away any time soon. It looks as though they are going to be around for a while yet, because they can't be relieved until the city has something in place to replace them.

The replacement for the nine-member community school boards will be twelve-member Education Councils. Nine of the members will be chosen (or, if you prefer, elected) by the district's parent associations. Two will be chosen by the Borough President. The last will be a non-voting high school student chosen by the local instructional supervisor.

While the community school boards were elected by a convoluted voting system that drew only four percent of the electorate, they were elected.

The new education councils will be chosen by parents, and therein lies the problem.

The Federal Government is involved in the process because one of its roles is to protect minority voters in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The feds have to approve any plan for choosing the new councils, and there can be no approval if minority rights are in any way diminished by the plan.

The feds took a look at the new plan and asked one question.

"Who are the Parent Association members that will choose the new councils," they asked. "Are they minority or non-minority people?"

That is the question that the Department of Education now has to answer, and that is not as simple as it seems.

Chancellor Joel Klein sent an Email memorandum to each principal in the city last week.

"For the purposes of the Law Department's analysis, please provide information about the race/ethnicity of the following three officers of your school's PA or PTA, who will be involved in selecting the parent members of the Councils: President; Secretary; Treasurer... Do not provide the individual's names. You should provide the information to the best of your knowledge based on your own visual identification; it is not necessary to ask the individuals to self-identify."

Principals were asked to identify the parent leaders as Black, Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian or "other."

"If you are uncertain about a person's race or ethnicity, or if a person appears to be of mixed race, please indicate "other," Klein wrote.

When a number of principals sent Emails back to Klein, indicating that they believe that there is something wrong in tagging parent's ethnic or racial identities, Klein responded by saying, "This is a federal requirement that we're doing what we have to do under the law. We have no legal choice but to collect this information."

Some principals, including a number of local supervisors, however, plan to withhold the information.

The supervisors union, the CSA, issued a statement by President Jill Levy.

"I think it's disgraceful for Joel Klein to take principals away from their primary task, which is instruction, and have them focus on race and identity," she said.

"I am not going to do it. I don't think it is anybody's business, and I am not even sure that it is legal for me to put this information on paper," one local principal, who asked not to be identified, said.

"I am not comfortable with this at all," said another principal. "I am supposed to be working with these parents as people, not trying to figure out their ethnicity and passing that information on to the federal government."

"It's really a rude way to find out this information," a local PA president said. "Why didn't the just ask us to supply the information about ourselves?"

Everybody who is involved with the schools knows that parent association membership varies from school to school.

The parent association at PS 114 in Belle Harbor, for example, has many members as well as a full slate of officers and board members. All of its officers are White. More than 100 parents show up for most meetings.

The parent association at MS 198, for example, has been virtually non-existent for years, with one or two parents running the show and few ever show up for a meeting. Those few members are usually exclusively Black.

I have no empirical information on the final tally, but I am willing to bet that citywide, the majority of parent association officials are non-minority. The tally might be different in Brooklyn and the Bronx if taken independently of the other boroughs, but that is not the way the feds want to look at the numbers.

What happens if the tally of parent association members shows that non-minorities will be choosing the new education councils? I do not believe that the feds will allow such a plan to go forward under their stated theory that non-minorities will not choose minorities for office if they are given the chance.

That is why, more than ten years ago, Rockaway got a new city councilperson and a new assemblyperson, selected from carefully drawn minority census tracts. They did not believe that non-minority voters would elect a minority politician, notwithstanding the success of such politicians as Floyd Flake, Malcolm Smith and Al Waldon in White areas.

What then? Back to the drawing board, perhaps even back to those daunting elections that kept everybody from the polls on school board election days.

The feds will have the final say and nobody, from the chancellor to the local parent association president knows which way they will jump once they see the numbers. If they see the numbers.

Chances are, the numbers will make the feds blanch. Most parent association groups in Queens and Staten Island are controlled by non-minorities. The feds will not like that.

If that happens, then the Community School Boards would remain in place until after those elections. We are talking about a year or more.

Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave When First We Practice To Change The School System!

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