Discontent Overshadows School Board 18 Meeting
Discontent Overshadows School Board 18 Meeting By M. Frith
Ongoing infighting among Community School Board 18 members and the dissatisfaction parents feel towards the board took center stage and overshadowed at last week’s special public meeting.
Held to discuss and vote on three resolutions, the January 31st meeting took place at P.S. 279 Annex,at Flatlands Avenue and East 101st. Some remarks by board members regarding these resolutions invariably led to scathing comments about President Julia James.
It was only three weeks before, at a January 9th public meeting that a resolution to investigate James was "defeated", Secretary/Treasurer Mark Fertig clarified, "with a vote of 4-4-1". Then, some board members squabbled fairly briefly regarding allegations against James, but at the January 30th meeting nearly every board member had something to say, and most, in volumes that left microphones superfluous.
The first motion, regarding the school board’s DCEP (District Comprehensive Educational Plan) based narrative summary of Superintendent Paula LeCompte Speed’s mid-year progress report was agreed upon by all members and passed. It was Resolution III, a motion by Fertig to construct a media campaign promoting District 18 intermediate schools’ special programs, that elicited fireworks.
Board member Dominick Andreassi, while abstaining from voting, accused James of being "a little dictator". As in the January 9th meeting, where board members, in particular Fertig, claimed they had no clear prior knowledge of the investigation motion, Andreassi appeared outraged at his lack of knowledge about the media campaign resolution. To James, he said, shouting "You must consult with other board members whether you like it or not," and sent a microphone crashing onto the table in front of him.
Board member Josefina Johnson, also choosing to abstain, vehemently agreed with Andreassi, adding, "I can not trust someone (James) who uses funds for their own personal use." This particular bone of contention surrounds the purchase of a computer that resides in the district office. Both Johnson and Andreassi accused James of purchasing the computer for herself.
Following the indictment, other board members spoke in James’ defense. Vice President Abu A. Q. Abu made it clear that if James was not re-elected next year the computer would remain in the district office and the new president would benefit from the purchase. "The computer is for all board members," Abu said, "It’s not fair to besmirch her character!" Nonetheless, he abstained from voting on Resolution III citing James’ not consulting him as the reason.
Board member Lloyd Roberts tried getting the board back on course by declaring himself frustrated and embarrassed by the dialogue. "I feel like I’m amongst Sunday school children," he said. Then added, "I am for any resolution that will benefit the children…even if the devil put forth a resolution that will help the children, I would support it."
Listening to the exchange, an audience member rose and urged board members to stop, as he put it "bickering". After a few more comments: Donna Pensabene apologized to the audience for the digression and announced her own abstention, Fertig took responsibility for the motion naming as his incentive a desire to encourage parents to keep their children in District 18 schools, and James defended herself by stating she owned several of her own computer. James also reminded board members that it only takes three members to be in agreement over a motion for it to be put to a vote. She further said, "If anyone is going to argue about having an internet accessible computer, they are computer illiterate."
In support of Resolution III, James went on to give a detailed argument for the campaign. She noted"white flight"- the phenomenon wherein white families move out of neighborhoods experiencing an increase in families of other races, "brain drain"- a reference to high levels of students, in particular the brightest children, leaving the district, and "economic drain"- the tendency of adults to not spend money in communities where their children do not go to school as key reasons for the decline in District 18. James also highlighted her belief that District 22 schools were winning District 18 students and that the board and parents had to do something about it. "Unless we can do something to encourage our best students to stay we will fall steadily down a slippery slope," she said.
With the renewed focus on the resolution, parents took the floor to comment. They appeared baffled by the objective of the resolution and mentioned their own doubts about the wisdom of such a campaign.
Ms. Yvette Findlayter, a parent of three children, was apprehensive about putting her children in the district’s schools because of low test scores. "First you have to bring the schools up to par, then we will keep our children here," she said.
Former PTA president and current advisor Frank Mitchell was the most outspoken, mentioning the fact that the school board should work with the students and programs already present. "What about Lennox Academy, try to expand on the academy, work with what you have," he urged.
The final parent to speak on the resolution, Wendy McClaren, admitted to being a parent who took her child out of District 18 and into District 22. She cited the state of District 18 schools as the catalyst and wanted to know if the board was suggesting children come back to a failing district.
The vote concluded with three board members (Fertig, James, and Roberts) for the motion, one opposed (Andreassi), and five abstentions.
The second resolution which was discussed last, directly addressed the negative state of District 18 schools of which the parents spoke, but still caused a stir. Resolution II proposed School Board 18 have a forum in early Spring 2001 to address the education quality issues plaguing District 18. With I.S. 252 designated a SURR (Schools Under Registration Review) school and I.S. 68, 211, and 232 designated Corrective Action Schools, the proposal seemed timely. Nevertheless, parents where insulted by the lack of inclusion on the planned panel, which will be made up of board recommended educators and community leaders.
Mitchell was the first to mention the lack of parental representation, "Why can’t parents be included in the panel," he asked.
Both Roberts and Abu were firm about the participation of parents in the proposed forum being adequate from the floor. Abu further stated, in reaction to Mitchell, "We have hostile individuals here, who want to tear this board down. They’d like for there to be a meeting every month just to tear this panel down."
Six board members abstained from voting and three were for the motion. The meeting ended with the vote, but small groups remained to quietly discuss Abu’s final comments and the division among board members.
Fertig, still reeling from the commotion over the media campaign proposal, questioned the boards dedication to improving the state of District 18. He said, "Every other board has at least ten meetings a year. We only have six meetings a year. 5 members voted against a motion to increase the meetings." He went on to express his disappointment in the low turn out of parents and tax payers for meetings in general.
One group in attendance for the meeting were police men and women, approximately eight to ten, some auxiliary, some street cops; but even their presence provided tension as parents seemed suspicious as to reason they were there. James balked at the mention of parental concern, regarding police attendance. She said, "They probably heard about the meeting and have children in the district. I mean, it’s standard procedure to have at least one police officer present,… but I’m confident that the other police officers were there because they have an interest in the schools."
When asked if he saw any end to the tension and divisiveness among board members, Fertig stated his belief that certain members were more interested in their own agendas and it would take those members being voted out for anything to change.