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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Brooklyn District 15 Community Education Council Fights Re-zoning

The District Community Education Councils in NYC represent the tiny sliver of face time that parents have to protest the NYC Department of Education's policies. When Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his team altered the power structure in NYC from some to none for parents, they cunningly left the CECs in place so that parents who were not appointed to the Panel For Educational Policy (PEP) could pretend that parent power existed.

This is all pretend. The DOE 'gave' the CECs veto power over re-zoning, so that all other powers could be taken away.

Nonetheless, the effort of parents to look like they hold some sway makes the newspapers every now and then, as in the case of Jim Devor, pictured below.

Activists against Mayoral control in its' present form know that if the desire for 15 minutes of fame was not present, and the good of the children in the public school system really was the first priority of parents, the members of all the CECs would have petitioned, in 2003, the NY State legislature to end the CECs as currently set up, in favor of an elected school board with powers to effectively challenge and change the NYC DOE's power and authority over class size, curriculum, special education compliance issues, etc. This did not happen.

Currently, the CECs of NYC are facetime panels where parents are selected by Parent Association Board members (if a school has no PA/PTA there are no "selectors") and these selected few get to sit on auditorium stages at tables that represent the so-called 'power' that they have, to discuss - and argue - important issues such as re-zoning.

This is a sham, and we need a mayor who will give us back the vote for our representatives along with powers to make a difference.

Betsy Combier

PARENT POWER A meeting of the District 15 Community Education Council in Brooklyn. Jim Devor, the council president, is at center

School Rezoning’s Border Wars

Two hours ticked by slowly in the John Jay High School auditorium as, one after another, Park Slope residents presented data about diversity, detailed unsafe crossings along Fourth Avenue and recounted how far they would have to travel to get to school if a plan to rezone two of the most popular schools in the Brooklyn neighborhood were enacted.
People were putting on coats as one of the last speakers was announced. Addressing the District 15 Community Education Council, the group holding the meeting, Josh Kantor said he had just learned of the proposal that would affect where his daughter would attend kindergarten. He asked if the hearings were a way to let parents vent or if they could actually sway the process.
At that, the council president, Jim Devor, began yelling. “You are insulting my integrity!” he shouted. The audience stopped, silent. A police officer appeared in the aisle.
By the time Mr. Kantor asked his final question — whether the council would postpone its Nov. 28 vote — Mr. Devor had sprung from his seat and his voice filled the expansive but half-full auditorium. “How involved in your neighborhood are you that you didn’t know about this?” he yelled, just inches from Mr. Kantor’s face.
To an outsider, the issue at hand might seem minor and bureaucratic: How should the attendance areas for two of the district’s most popular schools, Public School 321 and P.S. 107, be reconfigured to relieve overcrowding?
But in famously contentious Park Slope and in other neighborhoods around the city that are currently weighing school rezoning proposals — there are 14 proposals being considered this year, an unusually large number — passions have been running high.
In District 2, which stretches from Lower Manhattan to the Upper East Side, rezoning could redraw Chelsea and Greenwich Village school zones and also affect schools between East 14th and East 72nd Streets. In District 6, in Upper Manhattan, some Community Education Council members developed a plan that would remove school zones altogether. Opponents have railed against the plan, and one of its proponents recently resigned from the council’s zoning committee.
There are 32 Community Education Councils in New York City, and each one has 11 seats, 9 elected by parents whose children attend schools within the district and 2 appointed by borough presidents. From theEducation Department’s perspective, the councils are a bridge to parents, said Stephanie Browne, a department spokeswoman.
The councils are usually obscure groups that host meetings with the schools chancellor and put on poorly attended forums on issues like healthy lunches. But when it comes to rezoning, they hold veto power over the department’s plans.
Education activists say that power is crucial. The councils are an essential counterbalance to the Education Department, said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group. “That’s their only legal authority,” she said. “That’s when they have the most power.”
And while Ms. Browne says rezoning is a “collaborative, multistep process between the councils and the department,” it can get contentious. In District 2, the council has fought the department over data and deadlines. The council is weighing two proposals, one that would shift school zones when a new school opens in Chelsea, and another that would affect areas between East 14th and East 72nd Streets and adjust for a new school that is supposed to open in the Kips Bay neighborhood.
The council does not believe that the enrollment data used by the Education Department is an adequate predictor of the future, said Shino Tanikawa, the president. And though the council has asked repeatedly for other data, the department has not provided it, she said.
Education officials say that the data is just a piece of a larger set of information that develops throughout the rezoning process and comes from conversations with principals whose schools might be affected, residents, the School Construction Authority and Community Education Councils.
“The data gets us to a starting point, not an ending point,” said Marc Sternberg, a deputy chancellor in the Education Department.
The council also wanted to delay any vote after Hurricane Sandy left Lower Manhattan without power, leading to the cancellation of one of its rezoning meetings, but felt the department was pushing for a decision by late November. “I don’t like the fact they are telling us, pushing us, to vote on it next week,” said Ms. Tanikawa, adding that the vote may be held in early December. “I don’t think a lot of people working in the central D.O.E. understand what zoning is,” she said. “It’s families planning ahead and making decisions in their lives.”
Many public school parents have never even heard of their local Community Education Council until a rezoning proposal casts a light on its existence. In District 15, becoming aware of the council has meant also becoming aware of Mr. Devor.
On playgrounds, in grocery stores, and on the streets in the neighborhood, the rezoning plan has been a prime topic, as has Mr. Devor’s role. It is hard to spend time anywhere in Park Slope where families meet and not hear the same question repeated: “Who does this guy Jim Devor think he is?”
That is not because he proposed the rezoning — the Education Department did that — but because of the way, as council president, he has shaped the discussion. Those opposed to the plan (which has been revised at least once) have said that it will remove from P.S. 321’s area blocks where more minority children live, making the school less diverse, and have worried about the new school their children will be sent to. They have also suggested that overcrowding could be addressed by changing the policy that allows children whose families have moved away to stay in a school. Some opponents have also protested that their homes will be worth less if they are removed from the desirable P.S. 321 or P.S. 107 areas.
Mr. Devor will not listen to this last concern. “I’m not here to stabilize their real estate values,” he said in an interview. “It’s what’s in the best interest of children.” And he has tied any approval of the Education Department’s plan to a separate proposal for P.S. 133, which is scheduled to open in a new building on Fourth Avenue and Butler Street, in northern Park Slope, in the fall. Unless the department agrees to set aside seats in that school for children who are just learning English — a way to ensure the school’s diversity — Mr. Devor has said he will vote against the planned Park Slope changes.
Mr. Devor, a lawyer, was originally appointed to the District 15 council by the Brooklyn borough president about eight years ago, and then won re-elections. He has been around long enough to have formed opinions that he has no trouble sharing. “Cathie Black was my favorite superintendent,” he said of Cathleen P. Black, the former Hearst Magazines chairwoman, who was chancellor for three months beforeresigning. “At least she did no harm.”
He is not afraid to publicly criticize the Education Department. He has posted on Twitter a link to an article in which he chastised the New York City schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, for not meeting with Sunset Park parents soon enough after he cut prekindergarten spots in the neighborhood. E-mails that he wrote to the department and the responses he received have popped up on various education activist sites (posting correspondence publicly is one way the councils try to put pressure on the department).
In one that he sent before a public meeting to discuss continuing the arrangement in which Red Hook’s P.S. 15 and the PAVE Academy charter school share a building, Mr. Devor wrote that the council would refuse to co-sponsor the meeting if PAVE did not provide its 990 tax forms, among other things.
“I am not an especially popular person with Tweed,” he said, referring to the Education Department’s headquarters. “I have put a great deal of pressure demanding disclosure.”
Mr. Devor’s pronouncements, in particular, have earned him a reputation for having a flair for the dramatic and an obsession with details, a combination that earns him as much respect as scorn — often from the same people.
“I think that a lot of people paint a sort of villainous evil caricature of Jim Devor. It’s easy to do so because he does occasionally blow up and lose his temper,” said Jonathan Uretsky, whose child would be zoned out of P.S. 321 under the new plan and who opposes the rezoning. He has discussed his concerns with Mr. Devor. “But I think that is born out of frustration,” Mr. Uretsky said. “He sees the big picture. He’s given such a limited role and he wants to fix the entire district, but the only lever he’s given is this one particular issue.”
Mr. Devor said his angry behavior toward Mr. Kantor was an act of “self-indulgent solecism,” caused, in part, by what he called an assumption among residents that the fix is in, and that he and his board are not concerned with issues like diversity. He said nothing could be further from the truth. As proof, he offers his plan to use the rezoning as leverage to ensure diversity at P.S. 133. He hopes that the new school will attract students from Sunset Park, where he says overcrowding has gotten worse and the Education Department has not yet addressed it. “I’m the only person who is holding a zoning hostage for something else,” Mr. Devor said.
Department officials said they planned to meet this week with leaders from the two districts that will feed into P.S. 133 to discuss the plan: District 13, which includes part of Park Slope, and District 15, which includes much of Park Slope and Sunset Park.
“We are excited by the possibility and are exploring the option,” said Ms. Browne, the department spokeswoman, adding that legal and operational factors had to be weighed.
Mr. Devor has not revealed whether he will support the department’s Park Slope rezoning plan, even if he gets what he wants at P.S. 133. Mr. Devor said he was still poring over the department’s data and looking at numbers that opponents have presented regarding diversity at P.S. 321 and P.S. 107.
Re-election doesn’t matter to him, he said: his daughter is out of middle school, so when his term ends in June he is not eligible to serve again. Mr. Devor added that he had no political ambitions, and no fear of alienating either parents in the neighborhood or the powers in the Education Department.
“What I don’t generally accept is the D.O.E.’s definition of the game rules,” he said.

Zones for Popular P.S. 321 and P.S. 107 Could Shrink Under DOE Proposal Updated October 15, 2012 

PARK SLOPE — Zones for two of Park Slope's most sought-after schools, P.S. 321 and P.S. 107, could shrink under a Department of Education proposal, officials say.

Zoning changes are in the works for all of Brooklyn's District 15, and DOE officials are expected to reveal the details at an Oct. 17 meeting of the District 15 Community Education Council, District 15 CEC president Jim Devor said.

Several versions of the rezoning plan have been floated, Devor said. Under the latest proposal, the zone for the high-performing P.S. 321 on Seventh Avenue and First Street would shrink, and DOE would open a new zoned school in the former Thomas Aquinas School building on Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue. That new school would take some students formerly zoned for P.S. 321 and some who had been in the zone for P.S. 39, on Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street.

An assistant principal from P.S. 321 could be installed as the principal at the new school, but that hasn't been finalized yet, Devor said.

At P.S. 107 on Eighth Avenue and 14th Street, a "small chunk" of the school's zone would be shifted to P.S. 10 on Seventh Avenue and Prospect Avenue, Devor said.

Rezoning P.S. 321 has been discussed for years, but this is the first time the DOE will float a formal proposal to shrink the school's zone, Principal Liz Phillips said.

She was opposed to rezoning at first, but has come to believe it's the only option as P.S. 321's enrollment has swelled to an all-time high of 1,450 students this year, she said. The school now has 11 kindergarten classes. Nine would be a more reasonable number, which means P.S. 321 would need to shed about 50 seats, she said.

P.S. 321 has never had a waiting list for zoned students, and Phillips said she doesn't "think it's right" to put zoned kids on a waiting list.

"We're at the breaking point now," Phillips said. "If we don't get some relief, the two alternatives are either high class size, or a huge kindergarten wait list. And, to me, both of those alternatives are not really acceptable."

Zoning maps are closely watched by homebuyers and realtors, who tout the zones for P.S. 321 and 107 as selling points in ads for multi-million dollar brownstones. The proposed zoning boundaries are expected to be revealed at the Wednesday meeting.

"I imagine I'm going to be hung in effigy in every real estate broker's office," Devor joked, adding that he regularly gets phone calls from apartment shoppers wondering if the home they're eyeing is in the P.S. 321 zone.

Any zoning changes must be approved by the CEC.

Devor said he and other members of the CEC welcome public comment at Wednesday's meeting. "This is one of the only areas where the power exists within the community and people in the community are making that decision," Devor said. "It puts a human face to the issues we have to decide. We want to get a full flavor of what parents think."

The District 15 Community Education Council meets Wednesday Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at P.S. 38, 450 Pacific St. at Third Avenue.

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