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2nd January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 2, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

On Tuesday, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein got a belated Christmas gift from President Bush and the Department of Justice. They granted “pre-clearance” under the Voting Rights Act to the administration’s plan to deny New York voters any direct say over their school system, other than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the mayor himself at four-year intervals. This is not good news for the city.

Four years is just long enough of a period to irreparably damage the education of any child, and a wrong-headed mayor, as this one surely is on education issues, can damage a whole generation of children. It is remarkable that as our soldiers fight the righteous battle to establish democracy in the Middle East, we so cavalierly eliminate it at home. 
Replacing the 32 democratically elected Community School Boards will be District Education Councils chosen by the “officers” of the city’s largely dysfunctional parents associations.Out of the mix are non-public school parents, parents of children not yet of school age, ordinary taxpayers who, after all, are footing the bill, and the vast majority of the public school parents the plan is supposed to empower. How is that, you ask?
It is a dirty little secret of the school system that most parents, except in middle-class schools and a few others, have nothing but contempt for the parents associations. Hundreds of schools have no functioning parent groups at all. Small cliques of as few as a dozen or so parents elect the parent officers at many of the others.

Assuming for the moment that these narro
wly constructed councils are conceptually valid, one could ask why the Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein chose so limited a manner of selection. Rather than send each and every New York City public school parent a ballot in the mail with a return envelope to vote and have the ballots counted by some impartial agency, only the president, secretary, and treasurer of each parents association will get to vote. As I pointed out in an earlier article on this subject, the smallest boutique “theme park” school with fewer than 100 students will have the same voting power as a large school with 4,000 students. So much for the concept of one man, one vote.
The agenda for the discussion of the new voting plan was set by the New York Times, which, of course, cast this horror in terms of race: that the parent association leadership in the schools that still boast a “diverse” student population is often disproportionately white. They reported on the white P.A. president that questioned her own right to vote, despite being the elected representative of her school.Why? How could a Caucasian have the temerity to represent minority parents?

“All I know is I am limited by who I am and what I know and what I have experienced,” Cecilia Blewer told the Times. “And I am sick, absolutely sick at the thought that I might execute the voting rights of my school population.”

This nauseating self-flagellation aside, the sad truth is that Manhattan’s P.S. 163, where Ms. Blewer serves, is atypical. Even in some schools where they do exist, the parent associations are often hotbeds of theft and corruption.

School officials will privately acknowledge the widespread thievery in the parent groups, but are unwilling to crack down, lest they be perceived as “racist.” In a very few instances, prosecutions have resulted, such as the 1995 conviction of Madeline Vasquez, the P.A. president who set fire to an East Harlem middle school in a clumsy attempt to cover up the theft of the money the parents association collected for the school yearbook. She served six months in prison.

Two years later, Tyra Hamilton, the president of the parents association at P.S. 86 in the Bronx, coincidentally my alma mater, pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from the association’s checking account. After making restitution, she was given a conditional discharge by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, and served no time. In another incident in the same school, $15,000 in cash, the proceeds of a candy sale, disappeared from the coffee can in which it was kept in the school’s parent association office.

These two incidents at P.S. 86 came after earlier complaints that parents wishing to become active in the group were prevented from doing so — even threatened with physical violence by a parent association leadership that didn’t want to spoil a very good thing — for them.

For several years, I covered the parent association corruption story in this one corner of the Bronx. I was shocked at the frequency of these incidents, and the Dickensian use of children as unwitting accomplices in the conspiracies of adults.

At M.S. 80, the alma mater of designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, and entertainers Penny Marshall and Robert Klein, thousands of dollars was reported missing by an honest P.A. officer. His colleagues were so brazen that they tried to silence him by taking him to civil court, as Board of Education officials looked the other way. At P.S. 8, just across Mosholu Parkway, a P.A. officer who took $10,000 in candysale money home for the weekend for “safekeeping” was “mugged” on her way back to school with the cash Monday morning.

Within months after P.S. 37 in Marble Hill opened its doors, thousands in the P.A. treasury was reported missing. At P.S. 7 in Kingsbridge, the former principal, Milton Fein, publicly charged that P.A. officers in his school stole thousands by collecting funds for caps and gowns from parents, and then stiffing the company that provided them. The “leaders” disappeared with the money during the summer, taking along a telephone credit card, charging $1,400 in long distance calls that also went unpaid. At the time, they city’s most senior principal,and then nearing retirement, Mr. Fein had the courage to raise issues that others — to this day — won’t touch. Even the late Special Investigator for the public schools, Edward Stancik, refused to get involved.

Things got so bad that one school board member, Herbert Suss — elected by the public, not chosen by a clique — launched a probe into this widespread corruption.That effort was taken so seriously that the then-head of the United Parents Associations, Ayo Harrington,was brought up to the Bronx to lead an angry demonstration against any investigation into or reform of parent association financial activities.Today, Ms. Harrington is a key aide to Assemblyman Steven Sanders,a key supporter of the Bloomberg/Klein plan that removes people such as Mr. Suss from participation.

The sad and sorry state of the parent associations is one problem that the old Board of Education failed to address. Unfortunately, Tweed is similarly unwilling to confront, but seemingly eager to empower.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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