2009-02-06 / School News

Queens Parents Give Mayoral Control Of Schools A Low Grade

By Miriam Rosenberg

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall said, "The needs and voices of each parent has been diluted … I just think it [mayoral control] needs sharpening up."Also pictured is Rockaway's Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, second from right, and other members of the Assembly's Education Committee. Photo by Miriam Rosenberg  Queens Borough President Helen Marshall said, "The needs and voices of each parent has been diluted … I just think it [mayoral control] needs sharpening up."Also pictured is Rockaway's Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, second from right, and other members of the Assembly's Education Committee. Photo by Miriam Rosenberg Checks and balances and giving parents a larger voice in the school system were constant themes that members of the State Assembly Committee on Education heard as the first of five hearings were held to decide if any changes should be made to the 6-year-old law granting mayoral control in the city's schools.

The committee sat through eight hours of testimony at Queens Borough Hall on January 29 as politicians, Department of Education representatives and parents commented on the effects of the 2002 law that gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg direct control of New York's 1,500 public schools.

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, whose own commission investigated mayoral control said, "We should keep mayoral control, but the law must be tightened to ensure greater accountability and more meaningful input from parents and the community."

Her commission also concluded that there should be more oversight on DOE data such as test scores, graduation rates and budget information.

Queen Makkada, the president of the Parent Advisory Council for District 27, which includes Rockaway, told the committee she's not against mayoral control but parent leaders must be able to do the jobs they were elected to do. She said the millions allocated to district parent council budgets, to allow for district presidents and those they represent to come together in recreational, social and professional development to help them in their jobs as parent leaders, have disappeared.

"The money has been removed [without parent consent] from the district level of parent governance, and where there are no dollars there is no empowerment," said Makkada.

She added that parents should be treated as partners in decisions about programs in the schools.

Robert Caloras, the president of District Council 26, said, "There's no checks and balances. We've been marginalized as educational councils."

Dmytro Fedkowskyj is the chair of the Queens Task Force on Parental Involvement. He represents Queens on the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), appointed to that post by Queens Borough President Helen Marshall. He supports mayoral control, but not as it is. "I will have a hard time supporting the current system if the law is not revised to require fiscal transparency with some checks and balances on the mayor's power," said Fedkowskyj.

Currently PEP and borough presidents have limited power in approving DOE budgets.

Dennis Walcott, the deputy mayor for education, was one of the first to testify. "I believe the system we have in place today is the best that I've seen, although there is still a lot of work to be done," said Walcott, as he listed such accomplishments as increased achievement by students in every category, the end of social promotion and more seats for students. "There is now a culture of high expectations," said Walcott.

During questioning by the committee he said, "We've always admitted the system's not perfect. It's important to have an ongoing dialogue."

Queens Assemblyman and committee member Mark Weprin has a son in the city school system.

"When we passed the school governance law it had provisions for 32 superintendents and 32 districts. Parents had a place to go. There needs to be a local voice. There has got to be a nerve center. I don't think the law would have passed if we knew [how it would change]."

Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer sat on the original task force several years ago. "We had such strong testimony, which in a way is repeating itself now," said Pheffer. "The one thing we wanted to do was put [in] parental involvement and empowerment. As it got through the legislature, it became law, it became a little different and the interpretation is completely different. So we have to work on [it]."

She added, "We have committed parents and we have people who really understand the system the way it should be, and that's what we want to say to you - don't give up. We're not giving up. We've been here. We'll be here again. Each time I think we chip away at it."

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