2005-01-14 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

The public schools belong to the public and that public has an absolute right to know what is going on in those schools.

That has been my driving belief even when I was writing School Scope at the same time I was working in various District 27 schools.

Apparently, school officials in Region Five do not agree.

There are two recent examples where the press office at the Department of Education was very helpful, working with me to get permission for me to speak with the region in relation to the reported departure of MS 180 Principal John Comer and with Far Rockaway High School Principal Denise Hallett about the school’s recent deletion from the “Most Dangerous Schools” list at the same time it was added to the Schools Under Register Review (SURR) list.

They seemed to be simple requests. Certainly, the public has the right to know the name of the principal at a local school.

Certainly, a principal who spent an hour speaking with reporters at a press conference called by the mayor at her school should have five or ten minutes over a few days to speak with a local paper.

Not going to happen!

On Tuesday, January 2, I made a call to the Department of Education seeking information and interviews in those two issues.

In the first case, I got a call from Ben Waxman, a man with whom I had worked in the past and is now the Local Instructional Superintendent (LIS) for MS 180 as well as a couple of elementary schools in Rockaway.

At first, he tried to tell me that it was a “personnel matter,” and the law does not require him to talk about such matters. I explained to him that had I asked why Comer was relieved, that would be a personnel matter that he didn’t have to talk about, but that the fact a person was being relieved or not and who the new principal would be did not fall under that regulation.

He then gave me some doubletalk about how “the final disposition had not been determined” and that “before the end of the week, the matter will be settled” when he had every right to know that Comer was beginning to clean out his desk even as we spoke on Tuesday.

“We’re looking at all the possibilities,” Waxman said instead of being honest with me and with the public. He could have told me the truth, that Comer was leaving and they were not yet sure of his replacement or where he would be reassigned.

“Comer is the principal today and will be for sure for the rest of the week.”

When I called my helpful contact at the DOE on Thursday afternoon, January 6 (I don’t want to give her name because she probably would be fired for being too helpful to the press), I was told that she would try on Monday to get the Region to talk to me. What a deal.

On Monday, January 3, I attended a press conference at Far Rockaway High School where the mayor, the police commissioner and the school chancellor, along with others, announced that the school was coming off the city’s “Most Dangerous Schools” list.

After the news conference, the school’s new principal, Denise Hallett, was besieged by reporters from the daily papers and television outlets and I decided to talk to her at another time. I took her picture and moved along.

The next day I made a call for permission to interview Hallett. My contact at the DOE called me back and said that Hallett was waiting for my call and that she would speak with me about the Most Dangerous List.

I called the school late Tuesday afternoon and got a machine. I left a message.

On Wednesday morning I called again and Hallett’s secretary told me that she had my message from the day before and had passed it on to the principal. When I did not hear from her by late afternoon, I called again and was told the same thing.

I called again on Thursday morning and got the machine one more time.

I was on deadline at 4 p.m. on Thursday and she had still not yet called.

I understand from another source at the school that Hallett has disparaged The Wave, stating, “nobody reads The Wave in Rockaway.”

No matter. Even though we are relatively unimportant on the media scale in terms of New York City, we deserve to tell you the local stories and deserve respect in that regard.

There are many things that are not kosher in Region Five and they need to be addressed by somebody.

The citywide press is not interested in doing a story that is generic to this region alone unless there is a major scandal involved.

That leaves The Wave to cover those untold stories.

Those stories relate not only to MS 180 and Far Rockaway High School, but to many other schools on the peninsula as well.

We continue to get letters and email from teachers and supervisors who are afraid to speak out against what it happening in their schools for fear of being fired or transferred to the “Brooklyn end of the region,” which, believe it or not, is not as desirable as Rockaway.

For example, I recently got a letter from a teacher at PS 197 in Far Rockaway in response to a recent School Scope Column by Norman Scott about Michael Koss, the principal of PS 197.

“Your recent article about the embattled Principal, Michael Koss, only scratches the surface. It appears as though it is a well kept secret that he is under investigation for problems coming from the C-30 Process [the process to choose a principal]. His best friend, Chancellor Joel Klein, wants to keep it a secret and reportedly intervened on his behalf,” the letter said. “In February of 2004, in order to insure his ascension to the job and keep the chancellor happy, a number of high ranking Region Five supervisors, UFT reps and CSA reps made numerous calls to the committee on his behalf. In addition, the UFT did not chose the teacher-members of the committee as required by the regulation. Those teachers were designated by Koss from his school leadership team. The CSA representation on the committee was by a man from Brooklyn who had nothing to do with the school.”

A committee of teachers from MS 202 in Ozone Park, where I was once the staff developer wrote about a new assistant principal assigned to the school.

They write, “The newest member of the MS 202 administrative team, William Fitzgerald, is a joke. He comes straight out of a classroom in Brooklyn as do so many new administrators in this district. He has made it a point to continually remind staff members how close he is to Joanne Brucella, the school’s Local Instructional Supervisor and Dr. Cashin herself. He admits that he knows nothing about administration or being an assistant principal and that all he has ever done is teach Social Studies in a middle school. For this man to get a job over so many qualified teachers already in the building simply because he knows somebody is ridiculous.”

The song goes on and on. I can’t vouch for what is really going on in either PS 197 or MS 202, but I do know the teachers who sent the letters and I believe that they are telling the truth.

When the old school boards were reduced in power, many qualified people cheered because there was so much cronyism in their decisions. It is much worse today than it ever was in those “bad old days.”

And it seems that there is nothing that anybody can do.

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