By David J. Harvey
Parents and politicians gathered in the auditorium of the Queens Metropolitan Expe- ditionary Learning School (MELS) on February 9 to offer public opinion on a city Department of Education (DOE) plan that many said was a “done deal.”
The DOE proposed “co-locating” the inaugural class of the new Maspeth high school in the MELS building for the 2011-2012 school year. The building, known as Metro Campus, also houses the Metropolitan High School and a special education school.
The Panel for Education Policy is expected to vote on the proposal on March 1. If approved, the freshman class of the Maspeth high school would begin a year early—the school’s own building at 54-40 74th Street won’t be complete until 2012—and students would be co-located at MELS.
The public hearing was mandated by law, and there was a sense in the room that the plan was moving forward despite opposition.
“We could have this auditorium filled, and everyone can say their piece and it’s still going to happen,” Community Education Council District 28 member Kathryn Thome said.
At the meeting, community representatives spoke briefly, often through prepared statement, before opening the floor to public comment. Some speakers, like CEC 28 Vice President Emily Ades, received roars of applause from the more than 100 attendees.
Ades read a statement on behalf of CEC 28, which said: “It is our belief that the long term goal of excellence in the three schools currently housed here at the Metro Campus will be compromised for the short term goal of opening Maspeth high school one year earlier. The incubation is not in the best interest of the children, families and community.”
The public comment period lasted more than two hours and speakers expressed concerns of bullying—delivered quietly by MELS students Kierra and Sasha, the meeting’s first public speakers—and concerns that the DOE had already made a decision.
While the town hall meeting was scheduled to record public opinion prior to a vote, some parents said that the Maspeth high school was included as a choice on the high school application in the MELS building was evidence that a decision was made.
But according to DOE spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, schools that are still awaiting votes get included on the high school applications every year, because high school selections must be submitted this month—before the vote on Maspeth High School’s placement.
“It was included in the list because we need to give parents adequate time to choose a school,” Zarin-Rosenfeld said. “The vote is on placement, not whether the school will open.”
Several speakers were also concerned about student’s health and safety, complaining about the lack of operational cameras and missing doorknobs, understaffing of security guards and the fact that the school has only one nurse for nearly 700 current students. At capacity, the building will house almost 2,000 students.
MELS opened this year with grades six and seven, and will eventually serve grades six through 12. Next year, with the inclusion of the Maspeth high school, students would still occupy less than two-thirds of the building’s capacity. Despite the empty space, many parents were concerned that the new Maspeth high school’s own building would be incomplete next year, and they would find themselves overcrowded in the 2012-2013 year.
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, who serves as the Queens representative on the Panel on Education Policy, sat silently in the front of the auditorium for much of the meeting. Outside, away from still jeering parents, he said that in his three years on the panel, every proposed school building has opened as scheduled. He said he was concerned to hear about the Metro Center’s existing problems and he planned to report what parents had been saying about the buildings faults.
On the topic of co-location he said that “the school being imposed on is always going to take offence, they feel like they’re losing property and resources. But we ... have an enormous need for seats in Queens. This is an opportunity to serve 200 children.”
“I would not support this if it was for more than one year.” Fedkowskyj added. “We don’t want to impact other students. Based on the educational impact statement, based on the seat capacity in this building, there seems to be sufficient space.”
At the tail end of the public comment section, a supporter and founder of the Maspeth high school spoke on behalf of the students who would be residing in the Metro Center for the next year. She said that the students face overcrowding elsewhere, and that each parent would support the co-location if they were on the other side.
CEC 24 President Nick Comiani was one of few speakers other than the DOE repre- sentatives that expressed approval for the co-location, adding that CEC 24 had voted to support the proposal.
“I’m in favor of the school coming in if it’s done right,” he said. “This school is growing, they’re teaching a certain curriculum and it’s important not to let one school interfere with the other, but you have enough room for one year to give these kids one floor and a different administration.”
Councilmember Karen Koslowitz (D- Forest Hills), who attended the meeting, drafted a letter to Chancellor Cathleen Black asking for a written statement form the DOE that the co-location will last only one year. Council members Elizabeth Crowley, Andrew Havesi and Mike Miller co-signed the letter.
Community Board 5, which held a meeting the same night, agreed to draft a letter in favor of the co-location as their last order of business. Fedkowskyj, a Board member, voted in favor of the resolution.
MELS Co-Directors Pat Finley and Damon McCord said that while they are prepared for the new school to join them next year—and joked that they are prepared for everything—they insisted on not mak- ing any judgments on whether the co-location was positive or negative.
“Our opinion is less important than what was expressed tonight,” said McCord. “The leadership is just one tiny part, the people it really affects are parents, students and teachers.”