2012-02-03 / Columnists

School Scope

A Raucous Hearing At PS 215
Commentary By Norman Scott

Despite the fact the NYCDOE holds a closing school hearing for PS 215Q on a Friday night at 6 p.m. (January 13) the auditorium is practically overflowing. I get there late, around 7 p.m., even though I live 15 minutes away. I had been contacted by a reporter I know from the NY Times who borrowed one of their cars to make the trip. I tell her if she comes early I’ll treat her to a glorious Rockaway dinner and drive her there. But she gets delayed at the office and then trapped in a bad lane on the BQE and doesn’t get to my house until 6:30. So dinner goes out the window. We rush over to the school. I drop her off and have lots of trouble finding a spot — a sign of a big crowd. I park blocks away (I won’t go into details of the postmeeting senior moment when I can’t find my car). As I walk over, I can hear lots of cheering.

The auditorium is packed. Thank goodness The Wave’s Miriam Rosenberg is there to cover the story and take pictures (see her report last week: “Tensions Run High at PS 215 Meeting”). Outside the auditorium I run into Queens Panel for Educational Policy rep Dmytro Fedkowskyj whose votes to defend public education are spotty at best. “Did you hear my statement?“ he asks. Sorry I missed it. It must have been a wowser. Later I ask if he categorically supports keeping PS 215 open. He says, “I’ll examine the facts and make a decision.” Okay. Examine what facts? No examining should be necessary when it comes to the failed policy of closing schools and opening replacements in their place – with the sole goal of removing (and blaming) the teachers and administrators (who always manage to land on THEIR feet). PS 215 and Peninsula Prep have legitimate cases for remaining open, as did Beach Channel HS, et al. When will he get it? Oh, I almost forgot. Queens Borough President Helen Marshall calls the shots and she backs Bloomberg but will turn Dmytro loose at times since Bloomberg has the votes he needs from his PEP puppets and Dmytro’s vote doesn’t really count for much. My question always comes down to: if your vote doesn’t count, why not at the very least vote to do the right thing all the time?

Inside the auditorium: Surprisingly, Chancellor Dennis Walcott is at the meeting sitting on the dais, trying to show how cool he is (that won’t last). We get there too late for his presentation but later get to hear him throw the bull about how the data shows that PS 215 must be closed.

The place is loaded with lots of emotion and anguish emanating mostly from parents and alumni. One parent makes a powerful statement that actually brings tears to some people’s eyes. She says, “Stop sitting up there and come down here and see what we need …when you mess with a child an angry parent is coming.” She ends by invoking the bible and admonishing the people on the panel that “God is coming.” I’m not religious but I get the shudders. (I included her entire statement in the video).

Teachers speak but try to focus on making the case for the school by emphasizing that the school went from an A to F with the same staff and administration. The variable has been the loss of services. Walcott answers that the school is rated against other schools in the same class and budget and is not keeping pace. He intimates that perhaps the principal did not make good choices in how to spend the money they get. Why believe anything he says at this point? Remember, he may seem to be a new chancellor, he has actually been behind the scenes of the entire failure of ed policy under Bloomberg since Day One.

Walcott’s tune hasn’t varied for a decade. A building could come down around his ears and he would say nothing’s wrong – think recent ocean liner disaster. Captain Walcott (Schettino) is in charge of a ship that came aground under Joel Klein and is now listing badly while the Captain tells people to go back to their cabins. With this Titanic of a school system they haven’t even supplied deck chairs to move around.

Sitting next to Walcott is Susan Rippe-Hofmann, the principal of PS 215. We will hear her praised and criticized during the evening, with Community Education Council 27 President Coralanne Griffith-Hunter, PTA President Donna Hamlet and a teacher calling for the school admin to be replaced before the school is closed. At one point in the meeting a former PTA president places the blame on Rippe-Hofmann.

There are certainly indications that tensions exist with some parents though there was much more praise than criticism for her. One teacher tells me the principal seem to be trying to keep teachers out of the battle, telling them to let parents carry the ball because teachers have self-interest. They sure do, facing the hell of being a rootless ATR. Another tells me the principal isn’t really fighting because retirement looms. Or if not she doesn’t want to rock any boats since administrators are taken care of by Tweed after their schools close even if teachers are screwed.

But it is clear from that some teachers are not staying out of the battle, some speaking passionately. Others use data and logic. Later I raise the issue with some as to whether the closing might have something to do with the number of senior, higher salaried teachers working at PS 215. They nod knowingly. There is a lot of emotion – anguish amongst parents, teachers, alumni. Even the UFT officials from the Queens office seem frustrated, with UFT Borough Leader Rona Freiser and chief political officer Dermot Smyth trying to get the floor but being denied by Walcott until they use the magic words that seem to strike fear into Tweedies – Mic Check. Rona gets to ask her question – which after all the hubbub, isn’t very relevant to PS 215. But the UFT is so pissed off it looks to get in a shot at Tweed whenever it can.

Also present is District 27 Superintendent Michelle Lloyd-Bey who over the years has always tried to play the “who me” and “don’t kill the messenger” role while slipping in the shiv. Never a favorite of mine. Lots of people ask why nothing was done over the years if there were signs the school was failing.

The numerous reorganizations over the years from district to region to network has allowed Tweed to blur the lines of responsibility allowing Lloyd- Bey to shrug.

The meeting ends soon after a major confrontation between an angry parent and Walcott. Lots of finger pointing with Walcott’s cool wearing away. “You never came out here before, so why you came out here now,” the parent says practically getting in Walcott’s face. Things are getting hot before City Councilman James Sanders comes to the microphone (getting lots of boos) to save Walcott. He calms things down but doesn’t take sides. He should.

Quite an interesting evening. The next round will be on February 9 when the PEP puppets will vote to close over 20 schools. PS 215 and the local charter school, Peninsula Prep Academy, are on that list. PPA had a rally at Tweed on January 26, taking a busload of supporters, followed by a private meeting with Walcott, PPA parent leader Josmar Trujillo and State Senator Malcolm Smith, who set up the meeting, an indication Smith still has ties to the school he founded.

Josmar has been a tireless promoter for PPA and having a voice like his with a united school community behind him might just make a difference, especially since charter schools are given favor by the DOE.

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