November 9, 2012
The city postponed some Panel for Educational Policy votes to next month after Hurricane Sandy threw the Department of Education’s public hearing schedule off track. But at the panel’s monthly meeting Thursday night, several members argued that the department was getting back to its regular business too quickly.
“We need to give people time to recover from this tragedy that we all have experienced in some way or another,” said Kelvin Diamond, the new Brooklyn borough president’s representative on the panel.
Diamond proposed a resolution to suspend all public hearings until 2013 for Brooklyn schools. Hearings about four proposals to co-locate or shrink schools in Brooklyn were rescheduled because they were supposed to take place during the week when all schools were closed because of the storm. Hearings about another 6 proposals for changes to Manhattan and Bronx schools are set for between now and Dec. 20, when the panel is to meet next. The hearings must happen before the panel can vote on the proposals.
Diamond said it would be unfair to hold hearings when many Brooklyn residents cannot focus on changes to how school buildings will be used next year.
“They’ve been hit hard. We just can’t have a machine run through them,” he said. “I have a [Community Education Council] member who is grieving, who attended a funeral and didn’t have time to respond to a letter” from the city.
Other panel members jumped to support the resolution, even suggesting that it be broadened in scope.
“It’s highly inappropriate” to hold hearings in the wake of hurricane, Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan borough president’s representative, told officials.
“The administration is taking advantage of the fact that people can’t get to the hearings, can’t voice their opposition,” he added. “I would support the resolution not just for the specific Brooklyn proposals but for all the proposals that were moved to the December meeting.”
Hearings about six other proposals, for schools in Manhattan and the Bronx, were also rescheduled because of the storm.
But city officials said there is not enough time in the year to postpone hearings further, especially because state law requires the city to follow a rigid public notification timeline when proposing that schools be colocated, opened, or closed. The panel, which is dominated by mayoral appointees and has never sided against the city, voted down the resolution.
Chancellor Dennis Walcott said holding the hearings and taking up the proposals would help the department return to normalcy after several weeks when the department has been engaged in an all-hands-on-deck effort to figure out how to serve thousands of students whose schools were damaged.
“Part of the balancing act we’re trying to do is be sympathetic to what’s going on in New York City right now.” Walcott said. “While we’re balancing that part of life, we also have to balance the reality that life does go on as well. Part of that is to make sure we maintain the schedule that will allow us to conduct the business.”
He and other officials noted that the city would run the risk of being unable to fulfill its schools agenda for the year if it waiting any longer than planned to vote on the proposals, which would determine where new schools are sited within existing schools.
By the new year the city must also begin the process of holding hearings for schools it wants to close. “Early engagement” meetings for some elementary and middle schools at risk of closure had been scheduled for last week, and the department had also planned to name the high schools that might be closed during the week that schools were closed.
Debate over Diamond’s resolution did not end after the panel voted it down. The next item on the agenda, school budgets, had been deferred from October’s meeting because members of the education department’s budget office were ill at that time, officials said.
The explanation prompted Sullivan to renew his support for the postponement resolution.
“So we have hundreds of thousands of people across the city grieving and we cannot defer the people’s business … but one person is sick, and we have to defer the budget vote for the school system?” he asked.
“We’re going to stay on topic,” a budget secretary responded, prompting a raised-voice squabble between Sullivan and Walcott.
“Madame Chair, may I ask my next question?” Sullivan said in almost a shout, repeatedly as Walcott asked him to stop talking.
“You’re not asking a question about the budget, you’re giving your opinion in linking people who are grieving to someone who was sick,” Walcott said. “Patrick, you’re not going to bully people. … Stop being dramatic and ask a question.”
“Why can’t you postpone the other votes because people are grieving?” Sullivan responded, prompting some applause from the thin PEP audience.
As expected, the panel, which met in Queens this month, approved all department proposals and contracts up for a vote, including a new, one-year contract for Champion Learning, a tutoring service that lost its contract with the city earlier this year after it was found to have billed the city millions of dollars for services it might not have delivered.
Most of the attendees had little to say about the disruptions that Sandy has wrought on the city’s schools. Instead, parents turned out to lobby for more gifted programs in Queens, and to support the co-location of a new Achievement First charter school. The panel also approved a co-location proposal that would require P.S. 15 in the Bronx to cede three classrooms, to the dismay of school leaders who attended the meeting to protest the plan.