After a raucous night at Brooklyn Tech, where the school’s 2,800 auditorium seat was nearly filled to capacity with screaming parents, teachers and protesters, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close 19 large public high schools. The decision came after nearly nine hours of testimony, much of it filled with rage, delivered by furious demonstrators and even a couple of sock puppets.
The PEP is a hallmark of what mayoral control means for the school system now. Mayor Bloomberg appoints eight of its members, and each Borough President appoints one. Most of the votes to close the schools went down eight to five.
We watched about the first seven hours of testimony from the hall, which was never dull. Before the final vote came at 2:40 in the morning, the overwhelming anger of the testimony was directed towards Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who sat onstage and suffered a marathon level of public humiliation rivaled only by Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“Racist!” screamed many in the crowd at Klein, mixing it up now and again with phrases like “My grandmother taught me to identify the Klu Klux Klan even when they weren’t wearing their hoods!” When Klein made the mistake of looking down during one woman’s testimony, he was greeted with shouts of “Stop looking at your goddamn Blackberry! How dare you?!”
At one point, two activist parents — Jane Hirschmann and Lisa Donlan — opened their testimony, saying that “since we were coming to a puppet show, we figured we’d bring a puppet show.” They proceeded to mock the PEP with actual puppets (pictured). “Have you listened to all of the parents and students?” one puppet asked the other. “Listen to parents and students? I was too busy on my Blackberry!”
One of the most contentious moments of the evening was when the head of NAACP of New York City was not allowed to finish her testimony. The audience wasn’t having it, and even though several later speakers tried to acquiesce their time time so that she could finish, the PEP would turn off their mics whenever they tried.
This drew one of the few audible rebukes from a member of the panel, when Patrick Sullivan, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s appointee, angrily called out that the meeting was being improperly chaired by Secretary Michael Best (who is not a member of the panel), and not by its Chairman, David Chang.
“Michael, if you’re going to turn the mic off on the NAACP, have the mayor’s appointee do it!” screamed Sullivan at his fellow member. Eventually, they let the NAACP finish delivering their testimony.
The fear of many in the room is that when the city closes the large public schools, they will replace them with much smaller public and privately-run charter schools in the same building. Each of these will offer fewer classes and services, and will have incentives not to take on the hardest cases, like special education and ELL (English Language Learner) students. These students will be sent to an even bigger, more overcrowded school, the theory goes, where scores will go down, and which will then be closed, in an endless shell game.
The PEP was scheduled to also vote on the contentious issue of extending PAVE Academy’s charter within PS 15’s building in Red Hook. It is unclear from news reports at this time if they did.
Many of the elected officials who testified, including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, implored the PEP to at least postpone the vote and take time to consider the testimony, as well as to actually read the plans for improvement each school delivered to the Department of Education just a few days ago. When the vote on school closures finally came, not one of them was spared.
In early hours of the morning, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein both released statements commending the vote.