East Side parents beat back school cuts

By Megha Bahree

It’s a case of being alert and swinging into action at the first threatening signs. And it works. Or rather, in the case of these 1,000 students it did.

Up until last Wednesday, five schools in Community School District 1 were facing a nearly $1 million budget shortfall for the upcoming academic year. Moreover, the full-day pre-K that they were accustomed to was also going to be scrapped, leaving no place for 400 students to go since it was too late to enroll in any other school.

But two weeks of major campaigning and reaching out by parents, teachers and school board members to local politicians and Department of Education officials changed the situation. Now all schools in the old District 1 have full-day pre-K and the five schools have started the process of converting their status to “schools” from “programs.” The combined shortfall they face is now reduced to $290,000.

The problem originated partly because of the budget cuts that the city has implemented on all schools, but mostly because these schools were lumped together as one school under the P.S. 196 Umbrella Coalition, despite functioning as independent entities.

The five schools — Lower East Side School, Neighborhood School, Earth School, Children’s Workshop School and Tompkins Square Middle School — have so far been grouped under a single administrative structure for the purpose of having one principal. However they have always functioned as independent schools. Each opened at a different time, the earliest in 1989. Each had its own P.S. number for budget allocation purposes. Data was collected separately from each school with their own “report cards” in the Board of Education. Each assistant principal attended principal meetings in the district and each has been evaluated by the district superintendent as a school leader. And parents have to apply to each school separately when seeking admission for their children.

Until now, each school had been receiving its basic program allocation — $230,000 for primary schools and $325,000 for middle schools. However this year the five schools combined received a single allocation of $325,000. Another problem was that the per capita allocations were made based on flawed data. For instance, though the Earth School has 249 students registered, the money allocated was for 193. Similarly in another school the money had been allocated for 170 students even though there will be 300 enrolled in the fall.

As a result, at the end of June the schools’ directors sounded an alarm to their respective parent organizations that they hadn’t received the funds they needed. The budget gap, according to school officials and parents associations, would mean no administrative or secretarial staff to do payrolls, no one to do office paper work or to meet the children on the school buses, answer phones or take care of a child who is sick and waiting to be picked up by a parent or if a parent is running late and needs someone to look after the child for a few minutes.

“We got the budget a few weeks ago and we were horrified,” said Louisa Campbell, who has two children at Children’s Workshop School. “The director of our school had been working very hard to get our independent school status as well as the money for the next academic session and she felt as though the rug had been pulled from under her.”

Adding further concern was the mayor’s reorganization plan, under which District 1, a relatively small Lower East Side district, is slated to be incorporated into a new Manhattan-Bronx Region 9 with centralized administration. With the former school boards apparently to be phased out within the next year, to be replaced by new parents advisory boards, the parents at the five schools realized they were in a gray area, at risk of losing their voice. They determined to take matters into their own hands.

All five schools had an emergency meeting on July 24 from which a core group was formed to work on the situation. Parents started a steady stream of e-mails, letters, faxes and phone calls to the Department of Education, City Councilmembers, senators, assembly persons and even the borough president. The buildup was for the decisive meeting between parents and D.O.E. officials on Aug. 6. “One parent even has an e-mail relationship with Chancellor Klein,” Campbell said. “She wrote to him when he was in London and he was very responsive saying that he would look in to the matter.”

At the Aug. 6 meeting, a D.O.E. official said that the cuts to the five schools’ funding were similar to those experienced by schools throughout the city.

“Creating a system of 1,200 great schools involves a shifting of resources to where they’re needed most while ensuring the preservation of successful schools and programs,” said Michele Cahill, senior counselor to the chancellor for education policy.

Another parent, Lisa Donlan, has her daughter starting seventh grade at Tompkins Square Middle School and helped organize parents there. “Word was out there were going to be tremendous cuts and we spread out, developing and waking up networks within the school,” Donlan said. She called all 100 of the incoming families and managed to reach at least 80 via phone or e-mail, encouraging them to join in and write letters to politicians. She herself sent at least 20 e-mails and made more than a dozen well-placed phone calls to ensure that her daughter would have a good education.

“It was only the swift and strong action by parents that saved the day,” noted Dolores Schaefer, president of Community School Board 1. “In District 1 parents understood that they no longer had a district to have a quiet meeting because of a citywide bureaucracy. So they went crazy and the bureaucracy responded.” Schaefer personally bombarded the D.O.E., chancellor, politicians and elected officials as well as members of the Panel for Educational Policy until the five East Side schools were fairly treated. “You better have your act together and you better be vigilant and as soon as a problem occurs, you better get onto it,” she said explaining the parents’ new attitude.

“We even printed up flyers and put them up in the community,” said Ilyse Kazar, an Earth School mother and one of the organizers. “I gave up at least 50 hours of time from my personal and professional life. But a school board is a forum for parents to call their own meeting and to bring in officials and question them; and this is about to evaporate [with the change in the districting of schools]. The city is dismantling the system that gives parents a voice. We took the people whose salaries we pay to task. Parents across the city need to be more alert and start their own mechanism for the future.”