Volume 76, Number 9 | July 19 - 25, 2006

Stringer gives failing grade on education councils

By Anindita Dasgupta

Borough President Scott Stringer is calling for action from the Department of Education to address what he calls the failing performance of Manhattan’s Community Education Councils.

Last month, Stringer released a study on the state of the C.E.C.’s.

In the first critical analysis of the councils since their inception in 2002, Stringer’s report shows that Manhattan’s 6 C.E.C.’s are failing in their duties as mandated by the D.O.E. According to the study, 61 percent of council members polled said their council was not fulfilling one or more of its responsibilities under the Education Law of New York.

The surveys for the report, titled “Parents Dismissed,” were conducted by members of Stringer’s office through one-on-one interviews with 68 percent of the members of the borough’s six district councils. Stringer attributed problems to D.O.E. not providing members with vital training and contact information for council members from other districts.

“There is no doubt parental involvement is an essential part of any child’s education,” Stringer said, during a press conference outside the Tweed Courthouse on June 14. “Sadly, this report shows that D.O.E. is failing to deliver basic duties and in doing so they are further quieting the already-muffled voices of parents…. It is time for D.O.E. to face the facts, find solutions and uphold their obligation under the law to see that parents have a real seat at the table.”

The councils went into effect in spring 2004, when their predecessors — the community school boards — were phased out. Bloomberg created the councils to replace the community school boards, which were meant to give parents and members of the communities a voice in decisions and issues regarding the school board. However, years of corruption, board infighting and a complicated system of electing members led Bloomberg to abolish the boards and replace them with the new councils — whose members are either appointed by the borough president or selected by their parent associations and parent-teacher associations.

The councils’ responsibilities include measuring and evaluating their districts’ academic and financial performance, capital and educational plans and school zoning changes. However, Stringer’s report shows that the majority of members don’t feel qualified to fulfill the demands of preparing report cards on schools or other similar types of reports, due to lack of training. The report found that 92 percent hadn’t been trained on one or more of their state-mandated functions. In fact, 61 percent of respondents did not even know what a school report card was or that their council hadn’t done anything to prepare the report cards.

Harriet Barres, president of C.E.C. District 5 in Harlem, has been involved with her council since its inception. She bemoaned its lack of training. Now in her second term as president, she said, “I couldn’t discuss [school] zoning with you. I’m not that familiar with it.” In a phone interview, she said she and her council members work to the best of their abilities with the knowledge they have. Barres also described difficulties in getting answers from D.O.E.: “You play it by ear and do the best you can until you do something they [D.O.E.] don’t agree with,” she said. “Then they get right back to you.”

Yet, the department maintains that they have offered three opportunities within the last year for training in areas identified by council members, such as organizational skills as well as department-mandated duties.

The Department of Education took exception to the findings and conclusions of Stringer’s report.

Said Kelly Devers, a D.O.E. spokesperson, “We are concerned that the report does not accurately reflect the training and support that we provide C.E.C.’s.” Devers said the department has also held monthly parent leader meetings to which C.E.C. members have been invited. Senior D.O.E. staff presented information regarding reform initiatives and C.E.C. issues, as well as made themselves available to answer questions at these meetings, she said.

Michael Propper, president of the District 2 C.E.C., which includes the Village, said it was time to clearly distinguish responsibilities of various parent organizations.

“I don’t think they [C.E.C.’s] have been effective because there are too many organizations,” he said. “Because there are so many points of contact for the parents. Something has to go.”

Propper described multiple organizations, such as Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Committee, parent-teacher associations, President’s Council and Panel for Educational Policy. Both Propper and Barres said that some of the expectations of the C.E.C.’s were unreasonable. They said that the most effective use of their councils’ time is working as a contact point between parents and the D.O.E, and not necessarily filling out evaluations and report cards for schools.

“Our priority is really making things better and creating a lot of communication and to hear what the needs of the parents are,” Propper said. “We want the authority to be the voice [of the parents] and not just a voice.”

Barres said that some of the evaluations D.O.E. expects the C.E.C.’s to complete require multiple trips to schools in the district. Since members receive limited reimbursement, not stipends — as members on the old school boards did — Barres said it’s difficult for members to devote that much time when most have at least part-time jobs.

“They [D.O.E.] need to let people know that they really support us with a loud voice,” Barres said. “They have to get some better rules, better training and need to think about the stipend again.”

Barres said the ambiguity around their jobs in addition to the time commitment drove members of her council to quickly resign.

“They didn’t feel like they were doing anything!” she said. Stringer’s report confirmed that alarming numbers of council members resigned throughout the borough. Seventy-one percent of respondents said at least one of their council’s members had resigned.

In his report, Stringer stressed that it’s not the parent community education council members who are to blame for the councils’ dysfunction.

“The results of the survey also make clear,” Stringer said in the report, “that the perceived, and in some cases real, ineffectiveness of the councils is not the fault of hundreds of parents and community members who volunteer their time for the betterment of their respective school districts.”

Some of Stringer’s recommendations for reform include: dedicating more time and resources to supporting parents and possibly consolidating parental organizations, clarifying and possibly expanding council responsibilities and broadening eligibility criteria for council members and those eligible to select them.

D.O.E.’s Devers responded by saying the department would consider these ideas.

“We look forward to working with the C.E.C.’s and the Borough President’s Office on suggestions raised in the report,” she said. “We continue to work to improve parent and community engagement on every level.”

Barres hopes for reform soon, because she’s growing weary with the status quo.

“Last week was the first time that I ever got depressed [about the C.E.C.],” she said. “I love being with kids — and I thought that’s what this was about.”

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