A Long Night at Brooklyn Tech

The scene at Brooklyn Tech.
The scene at Brooklyn Tech.

Whenever people talk about the changes brought about by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control of the city schools, one thing that inevitably comes up is the end of the old Board of Education. The quasi-independent panel of 7 members appointed by the borough presidents and the mayor was widely seen as a bureaucratic black hole.

But that black hole also had a very public face. Every month, the board held public meetings in the auditorium of its (former) headquarters at 110 Livingston Street. Hearings sometimes went on for several hours as parents and teachers (and occasional random characters) aired their views on the appointment of a new chancellor or a change in policy. It was often easy to predict in advance which way the members would vote. But there were occasional surprises, such as when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani used his bargaining power to persuade a board member to vote against an educator everyone had presumed would be the next chancellor.

Which leads me to what happened this week at Brooklyn Tech.

On Tuesday, the Panel for Educational Policy held its long-awaited vote on Chancellor Joel Klein’s proposal to phase-out 19 low performing schools. The panel is the successor to the old board of education, but without any teeth. The majority of its 13 members are appointed by the mayor. This meant there was no realistic chance that they would oppose any of the closings. But a change in state law last year requires the panel to now hold public hearings before voting to open or close a school. Tuesday’s hearing was the first real test of that law. And those in the audience – who were overwhelmingly opposed to the closures – clearly thought the panel failed that test.

More than 2,000 people packed the auditorium at Brooklyn Tech. Three-hundred and twenty people signed up to speak, as well as a handful of elected officials. With a two-minute time limit per speaker, that added up to almost nine hours of testimony. It would have been longer if everyone stayed the night, but a few apparently gave up.

The schools on the list included Jamaica High, Beach Channel High, Columbus High, and Paul Robeson High. These are large schools with low graduation rates, and the chancellor plans to phase them out starting in September. The schools would stop taking new students while – in many cases – smaller new schools would open up inside the same buildings. Four new charter schools would also open. The chancellor says these new options will give all students a greater chance of success. He points to Bushwick High as an example of a failing school that was closed despite community objections but was then reconstituted into small new schools that have higher graduation rates.

But parents, students and especially teachers – who have the most to lose in terms of job security– have been skeptical about whether their schools need to close. Many felt the city had done little to help the schools improve, or had deliberately chosen to ignore signs of growth. On Tuesday, speaker after speaker chastised the panel and the chancellor for giving up on the schools. “I am not a failure,” a defiant Robeson High teen named Rebekah Freeman testified, holding her year-old daughter. Teachers from PS 332 in Brooklyn said their school’s attendance had suffered because it takes a large share of students from homeless shelters.

Throughout the hearing, the 13 panel members, Chancellor Klein, and various other education department officials sat on stage at long tables. Their faces were blank. The Chancellor got up a couple of times (to use the bathroom, according to his aides), prompting the audience to stop the testimony while chanting “Where is Klein?” Two parents testified with sock puppets to symbolize what they called a panel of “education puppets” appointed by the mayor. The panel members never broke character, even as passions occasionally flared. A few parents and students noted that the schools to be closed take predominately poor, black and Latino students. Some called the department racist and compared the school closings to the destruction of Haiti. Others thought the closings were part of a plot to privatize public education by bringing in more charter schools (which are publicly-funded but privately managed and use a lottery system when admitting students, instead of guaranteeing seats to neighborhood kids).

When the final speaker wrapped up at around 2:45 in the morning, less than 100 people were left in the audience. As the panel members then voted to close each school, those in the seats jeered “shame,” and “where’s your spine?” Four panel members voted against the closings. They were the representatives of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. They cited their discomfort about voting so quickly with no discussion, and without time to look at more data teachers claimed had been ignored by the Department of Education.

Was this what the state legislature envisioned when it required the city to hold public hearings before closing or opening a school? Chancellor Klein said his team had fulfilled the law’s requirements to have hearings 45 days in advance of a vote, and it did hold hearings throughout the month of January at each affected school. Minutes were posted on the department’s website (though a few got mixed up, and the teachers union claims procedures may have been violated). A deputy chancellor attended every hearing. And when the panel finally convened to vote on Tuesday, they put no limit on the number of speakers (so long as they signed up before 6:30 p.m.).

Mayor Bloomberg often says mayoral control of the schools means voters finally know who’s accountable. There’s no board of education whose members answer to six different masters: the mayor and the borough presidents. The new system has a chancellor appointed by the mayor, instead of the board. And the policy-making panel is also controlled by the mayor because eight of its 13 members answer to him, while the rest are appointed by the five borough presidents.

This is what mayoral control looks like. Albany lawmakers and education groups who sought a bigger role for parents lost that battle last year. But when parents prefer a school that graduates fewer than 50 percent of its students over a new school, there is obviously a question of trust. Perhaps it’s a classic case of the devil they know versus the devil they don’t. The Bloomberg Administration also blames the teachers union for whipping parents and students into a frenzy. Chancellor Klein remarked afterwards that closing a school is always a difficult thing. So is running a school system. How much input should the public have? It’s a question the city has been wrestling with for decades, and this week’s events ensure the debate will only continue.

Recommended reading: For a lively history of the New York City school system – it’s really more about the history of the city – read, The Great School Wars, New York City 1805-1973 by Diane Ravitch (Basic Books).

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter on education for WNYC Radio. Read more from Beth here.

(Photo of students at Brooklyn Tech by Karen Bolipata)

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