Opinion: The politics of NYC education

By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders

The debate about continuing the Mayoral Control Law for NYC schools is still raging even after the legislature left the Capital and left that matter unresolved. With a looming expiration date of June 30, I am occasionally asked, why, if mayoral control is so important, was it not enacted while Rudy Giuliani was mayor who also coveted that authority?

Some think it was because Giuliani was a Republican and the State Assembly with its speaker was Democratic. But of course I remind them that when mayoral control was enacted in Albany back in 2002, another Republican, Michael Bloomberg, was mayor.

But there is truth to the fact that the legislation was not negotiated during the Giuliani tenure in part because of who was mayor. I know this because at that time I was chair of the Assembly Education Committee.

I believe that mayoral control and the coherent accountability to the mayor with community input into decision making is far superior to the previous system of decentralization with its authority disbursed across the education landscape.

After a few brief discussions with Giuliani officials in the 1990s, it became clear that the mayor was only interested in total and unfettered control. He did not wish to be bothered or impeded by community or parental involvement whatsoever. In fact, he disdained and even ridiculed those with contrary points of views. Giuliani wanted to run the school system as he ran the police department… no questions asked. That governance view may or may not be right for schools, but it was surely not a philosophy endorsed by Assembly Democrats.

In our strongly-held views, parents and the public needed to be invested and involved in issues and decisions affecting their one million children, the ultimate consumers of our education product. It’s not for me to say whether Mayor Giuliani was right or we were right, but that was the difference.

When Michael Bloomberg became mayor, he too wanted control of the city school system but was ultimately willing to accept public involvement as part of the construct. Even Mayor Bloomberg valued and stressed his authority far more than civic engagement and that was disappointing. But at least Mayor Bloomberg (grudgingly perhaps) allowed a degree of public participation.

At the end of the day, public education is not like running the Police Department or Parks Department or other agencies of city government. Parents entrust the schools with personal custody of their precious children for a large part of every week. They have a right and a need to know what is going on in their schools as well as to have an opportunity to impact school policy. It is their children’s future at stake. What could be more important?

Decentralization failed largely because no public official was ultimately responsible or could be brought to account.

That is why as imperfect as it may be, mayoral control is a better system.

But without a sense of partnership with parents and communities, mayoral control will not make our schools as good as they might be.

If the leadership in Albany truly cares about public education in New York City, they will quit the political gamesmanship and restore the tools this mayor needs by immediately reauthorizing mayoral control. Surrendering to the previous dysfunctional system would be a grievous and cynical abdication of responsibility. It would be the triumph of politics over children.

And if this or some future mayor truly cares about good policies he or she will pay attention to the stakeholders who care the most… parents.

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State English test blasted as unfair

Students, along with their parents, protest outside PS 40 on Friday morning, after taking tests that parents said had age inappropriate questions and didn’t reflect the school’s curriculum. Protests also took place at other schools. (Photo by Gabrielle Kahn-Chiossone)

Students, along with their parents, protest outside PS 40 on Friday morning, after taking tests that parents said had age inappropriate questions and didn’t reflect the school’s curriculum. Protests also took place at other schools. (Photo by Gabrielle Kahn-Chiossone)

By Sabina Mollot
Following the lead of a principal in Brooklyn, who held a protest outside her school over state English language tests that have been blasted as unfair, other schools have followed suit, with parents organizing similar protests on Friday morning.
At the heart of the matter, frustrated parents said, was that the recently issued tests had nothing to do with the Common Core curriculum students have been taught and had age inappropriate questions. Additionally, in some cases, a multiple choice question would have more than one answer that seemed like it could be correct. There’s also been a lack of transparency, test critics have charged, with no one allowed to see the tests after they’re taken. Yet another complaint was there was product placement in questions, with references to brands like Nike, Barbie and McDonald’s.
On Friday, parents and students at PS 40 participated at the protest, with the crowd stretched along the block on East 20th Street. Some of the kids carried signs that read: “Our kids deserve the best, we need to see the test.”
Council Member Dan Garodnick was also on hand, saying he too wanted the state Department of Education to make the test available to see. “It will help create a better test in the future and reduce the enormous stress on kids and teachers if they know what this is supposed to be like,” he said.
PS 40 PTA Co-President Kirstin Aadahl, who has a daughter in kindergarten at the school, said she hoped to see some change by the time her child is old enough to be taking the state tests. “I don’t want her to be studying for a test that’s meaningless,” said Aadahl. Last year the test had similar problems, she added. “PS 40 did well but many scores went down.” Then this year, teachers were told not to “discuss specifics” of the test.
Students take the tests in English language as well as math. The math tests are scheduled for April 30, May 1 and May 2. The tests don’t factor into students’ grades, but do have an impact on how teachers and schools are evaluated and also could help determine what middle or high schools a student is next placed in.
Another parent at PS 40, Linda Phillips, said she’s noticed that the teachers have been under pressure as well as students. “They’re being judged by this and we feel for them.”
Yet another parent, Deborah Koplovitz, slammed the test as being “a complete waste of energy” and said school funds should be spent elsewhere. “There should be more teachers, more paraprofessionals, more nutrition assistance for schools that make it better for children to learn,” said Koplovitz.
Still, parents at the school insisted it wasn’t testing they were against in general or the school’s curriculum, but simply this

Parents with Council Member Dan Garodnick (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

Parents with Council Member Dan Garodnick (Photo by Sabina Mollot)

particular test, which was contracted to a firm called Pearson.
“The tests are not a good measurement of the skills or abilities of the students,” said Kara Krauze, another parent. “It’s harmful to subject students to testing that doesn’t represent their capacities.”
Another protest-site school was PS 59 on East 56th Street, which like PS 40 is in Education District 2.
That school’s principal, Adele Schroeter, had penned a letter along with another principal, Lisa Ripperger of PS 234, after tests were taken, urging other schools to participate in the protesting. In the letter she noted how few of her students opted out of the test this year, since administrators had felt confident that the test would be improved following other problems with the test given last year. But, she said, it wasn’t.
“Frankly,” said Schroeter, “many of us were disappointed by the design and quality of the tests and stood by helplessly while kids struggled to determine best answers, distorting much of what we taught them about effective reading skills and strategies and forgoing and deep comprehension for something quite different.” (See full letter here.)
A spokesperson for the state Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment on the protests.
While not done at every school, the protests may also be a sign that educators are no longer afraid of retaliation if they’re openly critical of an official policy. At least that’s the opinion of Shino Tanikawa, the president of Community Education Council District 2.
Referring to the principals’ widely circulated letter, she said, “I don’t think the two principals would have spoken out under Klein or Walcott but we now have a true educator as our chancellor.”
Tanikawa added that she was hoping “for a sea change.”

Letters to the Editor, The Soapbox, Cartoon, December 26

When the Police Academy was a school

Re: “Push for new school at Police Academy,” T&V, Dec. 12

Guess what, previous to Police Academy that spot on 20th Street was PS 50. Half (eastern part) was the red-bricked school, the western part an outdoor playground.

How do I know? I attended the school in the early ‘50s. Yes, my kindergarten teacher was Miss Hatch, first grade Miss Richter, second grade Miss Schaefer. And I still have my report cards to prove it! Then the school closed and all the kids were transferred to PS 40, where I continued on till JHS 104. Also, I think PS 50 ran through the block and the 13th Precinct also once was the school. The original 13th Precinct was on 22nd Street near First Avenue, in a station house up a few steps. I was a member of the PAL there, cop “Bob” was our mentor. Fond memories

Sidney Schneck, ST

 
 

What do the bondholders say?

 To the Editor:

In October 2012, the Tenants Association announced, with great fanfare and press releases, that it was taking our case “directly to the bondholders” – and “cutting out the middleman” – in order that we could gain control of our destiny.

Now, the time has come for the TA to report to us – fully and honestly – how the bondholders responded, when the TA put our case directly to them. Or, the TA leadership should observe fair and reasonable term limits of two years each, and step aside.

Yours sincerely,

Name Withheld, ST

 

The dangers of smoking

Dear T&V,

Michael Phillips’ review of the movie “Parkland” was as hilarious as anything I’ve ever read in your newspaper. Also his explanation that one of the reasons the film received an MPAA rating of PG-13, because people were “smoking throughout” the film shows how silly our culture has become.

Smokin’.

Richard Luksin, Minneapolis, MN

 

The Soapbox: Why Steve Jobs died

By David Chowes

Well, you think that the answer is cancer – and you’re right. Steve Jobs was perhaps the first true genius of the 21st century – but he was a complicated man. During his counterculture days, he was steeped in mystical thinking: took LSD, was heavily into Indian religious paradigms…

Of course, later he made a lasting contribution in technology and became another Einstein in another area and revolutionized the world. But, his earlier foray persisted. When was diagnosed with cancer, standard medical procedures gave him about a 95 percent probability of remission. But…

He chose alternative treatments instead and this decision most likely caused him his life. That Jobs chose the course he did is curious, because to create the technology he did, he must have been aware of the scientific method.

What is “alternative medicine” which seems so popular among the pseudo-sophisticates? It consists of methods which have not been ever been tested via methodologically sound procedures. They may have efficacy or not or be dangerous. “Natural” is no assurance of safety – remember that arsenic is natural.

Once I went to a woman’s home and saw many small bottles with strange names. I picked up one and asked her what this product does. She replied, “Oh, I don’t know. My friend who is very smart said it’s good.” I further queried, “For what?” She repeated, “My friend is very smart.”

Both had been graduated from college and had taken science courses. But, scientific courses, in the main, teach facts rather than what the scientific method is about – and, how important it is. From janitor to CEO, few realize how crucial this method is.

Alternative medications can be or seem to be effective. But they have not been studied and no one knows. If one person takes a nutrient or other tablet and a headache goes away, they may believe that there was a cause and effect relationship between the treatment and the headache going away. And, they tell friends that this “wonder pill” works. It then goes viral… but most maladies eventually go away without intervention; or, it could be a result of the placebo effect. That is why FDA approval assures (to some extent) that treatments are safe and effective.

Then there are the radio and TV hucksters who make a fortune using a naïve public. Well, the brilliant Steve Jobs succumbed to the myth of alternative treatments. According to Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, near the end, Jobs realized the great mistake he made that most likely cost him his life.

How many people in PCV/ST are using snake oil treatments rather than physician-prescribed ones and put ting their lives in peril?

Peter Cooper Village resident David Chowes taught psychology, statistics and research design at Baruch College/CUNY and other universities for 25 years.

 
 Dec26 Toon NSA
 
 

Mendez opponent, a pastor, says poor have been ignored

City Council candidate Richard del Rio  Photo by Sabina Mollot

City Council candidate Richard del Rio
Photo by Sabina Mollot

By Sabina Mollot

Lower East Side-based clergyman Richard del Rio, or, as the hog-riding, tattooed 61-year-old is better known in the neighborhood, “Pastor Rick,” will be on the ballot on Primary Day as the Democratic challenger facing Council Member Rosie Mendez.

Del Rio, who founded his nondenominational church, Abounding Grace Ministries, over 30 years ago and has since become known as a community activist as well as a spiritual leader, said he is running because he feels there’s been a neglect of the poor and the elderly in the second city district, in particular NYCHA residents.

He’s also staunchly against elected officials being able to run for a third term, a policy enacted four years ago so Mayor Bloomberg could run again. “It’s legal, but it’s still offensive,” said del Rio. “It was just a few people that overturned the will of 8.5 million people.”

Mendez, of course, is running for a third time, and, while del Rio was quick to say during a recent interview at his Avenue C campaign office that he isn’t about to “trash her,” he has referred to her as a “no-show” politician on his website.

During the interview, del Rio discussed a number of issues from crime (which he’s been on top of as an NYPD clergy liaison), NYCHA’s plan to build market rate housing on eight of its developments (which he’s opposed to) and the gentrification of the district, which includes the Lower East Side, the East Village, Alphabet City, Gramercy Park and Kips Bay. (Del Rio said he’s been extremely concerned about residents being priced out of the area and NYU’s ongoing expansion without having to build any affordable housing as part of the development deals.)

Meanwhile they’re getting prime real estate and (they want) humungous towers that are overwhelming to the community.”

On NYCHA’s “infill” plan of leasing space on public housing parks and parking lots to outside developers, including at Campos Plaza, del Rio said he feels that the housing authority’s board has “not only neglected but dismissed the poor.” If elected, he said he promises to fight the plan, as well as fight to protect the rent-regulated housing that exists.

The middle class and the poor are being pushed out,” he said, “the creativity of the East Village — that’s all being stifled with this new plan to create a city for the wealthy.”

Del Rio, whose parents were immigrants from Puerto Rico, has always worked directly with the poor since starting his church in “the worst area” of that time which was the Lower East Side. This place, cops, warned him, was where people sold heroin and their bodies. The idea of setting up a base there was to cut down on gang activity and crime, with del Rio saying he found the most effective way to do this was by befriending gang members and other young people who were failing school, homeless or facing other problems like incarcerated family members. Del Rio and his sons, then ages 3, 6 and 8, were often with him as he took a van around, in particular to Union Square, offering information about treatment and other drug-related programs.

It was in the mid-90s when, del Rio said, he was able to stop a gang from retaliating at Alphabet City’s Haven Plaza for the killing of one its members by a rival gang. He did this by showing up, talking to the gang members and “letting them vent.”

They want to know you’re going to talk to them without judging them or even preaching to them, so I became friends with them,” he said.

After asking his wife to make some sandwiches and hot chocolate — because he’d be inviting the gang over — the group talked some more and then, said del Rio, “It was my turn and I told them, ‘If you do this, this is just going to escalate.’” In the end, the retaliatory battle never happened. Del Rio said he became privy to the looming gang war from the cops, who he said he’s always enjoyed a good working relationship with. For the past 20 years, del Rio has been an NYPD police-clergy liaison.

On crime these days in the district, del Rio is concerned about the still-occasional shootings at public housing projects, and attends meetings of the 9th Precinct Community Council. He has mixed feelings about stop-and-frisk, having once been on the receiving end of such an investigation in which he thought the officer’s behavior was “rude,” but also believing that the local cops – NYPD and those working for NYCHA – have a tough job to do.

On education, del Rio is not a fan of the current system that shuts down failing schools. “Our mayor brags about being able to shut schools down; why in the world would he want to have that as his achievement?” asked del Rio.

In 1996, del Rio and his family started a program called Generation X-Cel, which was aimed at helping kids who were failing in school and had other problems. His sons, who helped run it, had asked local kids, what kind of things they wanted to see in an after school program, and found that by asking, the kids got interested. The program ran at a space rented in a building at the Jacob Riis Houses, until the group was booted when NYCHA decided to use it for storage. The organization was replaced in 2008, though, by another program called 20/20 Vision for Schools, which was implemented at 16 schools.

One of his sons is still involved with the program. Del Rio has a total of three grown sons as well as a grown daughter, now a registered nurse, who is adopted. She came from a family he knew, in which the mother was dying of AIDS. The mother had asked del Rio and his wife Arlene to care for her children, which they did, and he wound up adopting one of them.

As for his pastoral duties, del Rio has operated his church in a space he rents at MS 34, a school on East 11th Street and Avenue D. Though he’s been less active at the church since he launched his campaign earlier in the year, he’s still been involved in some activities including a couple of local street fairs organized by clergy as well as an 18-year-old church tradition of holding an annual basketball tournament.

(People are) so dismissive of clergy, but clergy are servants you don’t have to pay and they have a relationship with the community,” he said.

Richard del, Rio, not long after Hurricane Sandy, helps distribute food and supplies. Photo courtesy of Richard del Rio

Richard del, Rio, not long after Hurricane Sandy, helps distribute food and supplies.
Photo courtesy of Richard del Rio

Del Rio noted that it was through relationships he’d developed with locals and law enforcement that enabled him to respond to Sandy with trucks full of supplies. He and others, including groups from as far as West Virginia, distributed hot meals as well as things like blankets and batteries on the street on Avenue D. Eventually, 20,000 people were recipients of the supplies and 12,000 hot meals were served.

On smaller issues, del Rio said he would like to do more for residents who feel that they’re living in “permanent construction zones” and be quicker about fixing things, like, for example, restoring a few Alphabet City bus stops that were recently removed. The removals were supposed to be temporary, he said, but complaints he’s gotten from local seniors have indicated that they weren’t.

If elected, del Rio said he is hoping for a Democratic mayor that is either Bill Thompson or Bill de Blasio. Both, he said, have promised to have roundtables with local clergy.

Being a political outsider, I know there’s a lot for me to learn,” said del Rio, but, he added, “I’m a quick learner.”

Mendez, hoping to improve housing crisis, running again

Council Member Rosie Mendez in front of her campaign office

Council Member Rosie Mendez in front of her campaign office

By Sabina Mollot

Rosie Mendez, who’s served as City Council member for the second city district for the past eight years, is hoping voters will choose her on Primary Day, as she seeks a third term.

Mendez, who’s been tackling such issues as building neglect in public housing, disappearing affordable housing options in the district and more recently, plans for a sanitation garage on First Avenue that she opposes, said she’s running again because, “I love my job and I still have more to do. I don’t want to run for something else.”

On Monday, Mendez discussed her goals for the coming years if re-elected as well as ongoing projects at her campaign office on Avenue B and 11th Street, just down the block from where she lives.

In that area of Alphabet City, it’s hard to find a storefront that doesn’t have a campaign poster with either Mendez’s smiling face or Democratic rival Richard del Rio’s.

Del Rio has been critical of his opponent for running for a third term, but at her office, Mendez defended her position, saying that while she had been against overturning term limits for the mayor, she doesn’t feel the same way about other city legislative positions.

“My opponent and some people do not remember the whole process,” she said of the City Council’s move to overturn the term limits, which allowed Mayor Bloomberg to run for a third time.

The reason she said she feels a different policy should apply to the executive of City Hall from the rest of the elected officials, is that simply put, the mayor, with his staff, has outnumbered and outmaneuvered the Council, with theirs, at numerous turns and disagreements.

“Their staff was able to run circles around us,” she admitted. “We don’t have the staff with the experience to really get in and catch everything they’re hiding.”

At this point, Mendez is hoping the next mayor will be the Democratic candidate she’s endorsed, Speaker Christine Quinn. (Mendez also said she supports term limits for that position as well.)

However, Quinn, she believes, would be more sympathetic to tenants, and housing has for many years been the biggest challenge facing the district. This is particularly due to owners of regulated units opting out of the Mitchell-Lama and Section 8 programs and public housing being in a state of crisis with NYCHA having fallen seriously behind on repairs — around one million jobs. Additionally, at this point, the agency seems unsure where to go with a previously hatched “infill” plan to build market rate housing at existing low-income developments. As of last week, NYCHA went from asking developers from RFPs (requests for proposals) to RFIEs, requests for expressions of interest. Mendez said this week that she doesn’t want to see anything pop up that doesn’t have the support of tenants and isn’t entirely or mostly affordable housing. She also doesn’t want any new development at one of NYCHA’s proposed infill sites, Smith Houses, because of how it flooded during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

Council Member Rosie Mendez at Campos Plaza, where residents recently got a security camera system Photo by Sabina Mollot

Council Member Rosie Mendez at Campos Plaza, where residents recently got a security camera system
Photo by Sabina Mollot

Having grown up in Williamsburg Houses, the first public housing project to be built in Brooklyn, Mendez is no stranger to the problems of public housing.

Mendez said she is also not a supporter of the infill program because she doesn’t think the expected income from market rate units will cover the financial needs of the complex, but, she said, doing away with the $74 million NYCHA pays each year for police services would. The practice of paying the police, which private landlords do not, began in the Giuliani era. Mendez said she’s been pushing for the payments to end since she first came into office. While she is not enthusiastic about that happening any time soon, she has allocated $10 million in funding to NYCHA this coming fiscal year. Last year she did the same.

Mendez, who chairs the Council’s Public Housing Committee, said one thing she is considering — if constituents like the idea — is to get some affordable housing built specifically for seniors. Although well aware that it “takes funding to make,” she’s optimistic about the future under a new mayor, who, she hopes, would give owners incentives to maintain as well as build affordable housing beyond the standard 80/20 formula.

Priority one though for Mendez, if re-elected, would be to focus on a plan of action and preparation for the next Sandy-like disaster. After the superstorm hit, Mendez and her staff went to many buildings to check on the district’s most vulnerable residents, the elderly, sick and disabled. In some cases, this meant trudging up the stairs of high-rises to recharge residents’ motorized wheelchairs or bring them hot meals, medicine and buckets of water for drinking and flushing. With many residents having no water or just afraid to use what they’d saved, “It created an unhealthy and unsanitary situation,” said Mendez. By coordinating with local nonprofits such as GOLES and the Stein Senior Center, Mendez said she was able to meet the needs of those who were most in need while also not duplicating services offered by other agencies.

“It was multiple levels of triage to try to get to everyone so we wouldn’t have a tragedy,” she said, though she added that, “Unfortunately, we did have some tragedies.” One was a senior living at Kips Bay Court who had been carried down the stairs from her apartment on an upper floor, in her bed, as well as along with her oxygen tank, for medical help. The woman ended up not surviving although curiously, she wasn’t considered a Sandy casualty, with her death getting blamed on whatever condition she had. “It should count,” said Mendez.

Other problems were that at local emergency shelters, there weren’t enough cots for people who’d evacuated, and that those who remained behind in their homes were in many cases just unprepared for a blackout that lasted several days.

On education issues, Mendez has been opposed to many of the co-locations of schools in recent years and blasted the Panel for Education Policy as “rubber stampers” for approving the Department of Education’s co-location plans.

“I like to say I’m old school,” said Mendez. “When I went to school, a school was a building and a building was a school.”

From what Mendez has seen, the co-locations have led to principals having to put students’ issues on the back burner while trying to coordinate on who gets the library or rear yard at what time and schools not getting enough funding for arts, music and summer programs.

“I’ve been trying to supplement it with that much maligned discretionary funding,” she said. “It allows me to fund after school programs and during the day.”

Schools that have been on the receiving end of such funding include PS 110, PS 34, PS 40, PS 116, PS 188, PS 15 and MS 104, which recently used the money for a summer tennis clinic.

Other money from the discretionary funds has gone towards local nonprofits’ food pantry and hot meal programs. Mendez noted how on any given Saturday morning, at a church across the street from her campaign office, near the corner of Avenue B, the line for bags of food stretches outside almost down to Avenue A. “You’ll see anywhere from 200 to 400 people,” she said.

More recently, another issue that has been of concern to Mendez is the planned Brookdale campus sanitation garage. While located in City District 4, it would affect Mendez’s constituents living in East Midtown Plaza and Kips Bay. Mendez said she is mainly opposed to it because the garbage trucks would all be located in an area where “we’ve seen cars floating. If the trucks were to get flooded, there are pollutants and a lot of dirt and grime on them. I don’t know how the mayor justifies putting this right in the middle of hospital row, right in the middle of a flood zone. I think it’s very ill advised.”

On crime, Mendez said she believes the police force currently has too few officers due to a shrinking force, and while District 2, which covers the Lower East Side, the East Village, Alphabet City, Gramercy Park and Kips Bay, hasn’t seen the kind of crime it used to, there is still the occasional shootout, and noted Mendez, a spike in sexual assaults all around the city. She suggested that the city put “less money into consultants and more into our agencies.”

As far as quality of life issues is concerned, noise from bars has been an ongoing one though Mendez noted stipulations on hours venues can do business as well as fines issued by the State Liquor Authority against repeat offenders have helped to some degree. Another growing complaint has been evening noise from construction sites with developers applying for and getting variances to do construction from as early as 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mendez said she’s, in some specific cases, managed to get it “scaled back” though at other locations, late construction has persisted despite intervention from her office. She said she’ll continue to meet with the developers as well as the Department of Buildings.

Throughout her career in the City Council, Mendez said she considers her biggest accomplishments to be helping to save the Stein Senior Center, which has recently reopened in a new and improved location, preventing closures of daycare centers and in general, being responsive to individual concerns.

“Everything in politics is local,” she said, “so I’m proud of my track record with constituent services.”

Before her first run for office, Mendez graduated from New York University and Rutgers School of Law.

She began her career in politics as chief of staff to her predecessor in the Council, Margarita Lopez (now employed by NYCHA). Like Lopez, Mendez is openly gay and a champion for LGBT rights.