Thursday, September 24, 2009

Council Candidates Discuss Education Views

Barbs Later Exchanged Over Crowley’s Early Exit

By Conor Greene

The two candidates for the 30th District City Council seat – Democratic incumbent Elizabeth Crowley and Republican challenger Thomas Ognibene – discussed their views on education at a forum hosted by Community Education Council 24.

Residents in attendance on Tuesday night at PS 49 in Middle Village heard mostly about Ognibene’s views, as Crowley left early and missed the question-and-answer portion of the session. Instead, her chief of staff, Lydon Sleeper filled in for her to respond to questions on topics such as parental input and overcrowding.

Both candidates were first given a chance to introduce themselves and present their general stance on education. Crowley began by asserting that “there is no greater issue now facing the city” and touted her experience as a former educator and endorsements by the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors, which represents local principals.

“I have an investment like many parents here tonight” as the mother of two school-age children. She vowed to “make sure our children have the best tools” available and said education has been a “main focus” for her since taking office nine months ago. Of the $5 million she funded for local capital projects, a “large chunk” went towards schools. “I’m going to continue what I started,” she added.

Ognibene reminded the audience that he represented the district from 1991 to 2001, when he was forced from office due to term limits. “Not much seems to have changed” since he left office, as the community still “has to confront the same challenges” including overcrowding, which he said is “again a significant issue and really has to be addressed.”

The Middle Village Republican focused much of his comments on parental input, which was one of the major aspects of the recent debate over mayoral control. “The parents were supposed to have a lot more input into the educational process,” he said. “Parents don’t have that kind of input.”

He also recalled serving as principal for a day at PS 87 in 2001, shortly before leaving office. The school doesn’t have enough bathrooms or a proper gym and parents have been pleading with the city Department of Education for an expansion since the school expanded to a PS/IS facility nearly a decade ago. “It struck me as unusual,” said Ognibene, adding that he was “stunned” to learn the addition project never occurred.

“If I were councilman, that’s the first thing I would address because that’s really unfair to the children of PS 87,” he vowed. “I thought it was something we had accomplished” during the tenure of his predecessor, disgraced former Councilman Dennis Gallagher. By that point, Crowley (D-Middle Village) had left to go to other local meetings. Ognibene decided to stay to answer audience and board members’ questions, with Sleeper filling in for Crowley.

During the question-and-answer portion, the biggest difference that emerged between the candidates is their efforts to identify potential sites for new schools, which Ognibene said was a priority during his two terms in office. “The most important thing facing us then and facing us now is findingspace to build new schools,” adding that he had staffers dedicated to searching the district for appropriate sites. “We didn’t rely on the SCA [School Construction Authority]. We were more aggressive.”

When Sleeper mentioned that a site near Grover Cleveland High School is being looked at as a potential school site, Council President Nick Comaianni interjected that it was actually him that had identified that site. He asked Sleeper, “What have you found?” to which the chief of staff responded, “None so far, but we’re open to suggestions.”

When asked about PS 87, Sleeper said Crowley “started fighting for PS 87 immediately” after taking office. “We understand how ignored that school has been,” adding that the councilmember wrote letters and had SCA officials tour the facilities with her. “We’re fighting very hard to make sure that expansion happens,” said Sleeper.

Throughout the evening, Ognibene stressed that he would have an advantage in terms of getting a response from city agencies due to his relationship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is supporting his campaign. Ozone Park resident David Quintana asked Ognibene why he is aligning himself with the mayor, who “has failed us over the past eight years.”

Ognibene responded that he feels Bloomberg is “head and shoulders” above his opponent, William Thompson. However, he stressed that he and the mayor have disagreed on many things, and he isn’t afraid to let the mayor know when that’s the case. “Once he’s elected there are going to be things I’ll be able to work with him on,” he said.

Finally, board member Brian Rafferty asked whether they feel Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has the best interests of District 24 in mind. Sleeper said he doesn’t know Crowley’s exact stance on this issue and declined to answer. Ognibene said he doesn’t think Klein is an “evil man” but said overall, “the answer is no.” While he doesn’t think that Klein should be fired, he added, “I believe I can get that message across” if elected.

On Wednesday, Ognibene criticized Crowley for leaving early and accused her of scheduling other meetings to avoid having to answer questions from board members and residents. “This is typical. She made the appointment to go to these other meetings after she had confirmed this educational panel, and that’s offensive to me,” said Ognibene. “To use a decent, non political organization such as the Sons of Italy as an excuse, that was very, very offensive.”

In response, Crowley’s press secretary, Meredith Burak, said the CEC meeting was one of five stops the councilmember made that evening that had been scheduled for months. Instead, Burak argued that it was inappropriate for the CEC to even hold a candidates forum. “The bottom line is the forum never should have been held,” she said, adding that this is the only race the CEC is focusing on, even though that district includes parts of six separate council districts.

Burak accused Comaianni of having a “vendetta” against Crowley. “This was based solely on political purposes and had nothing to do with education. Politics should not be brought into the mix, and by bringing politics into this arena, Nick Comaianni is jeopardizing his position because he is abusing his power.”

Crowley expressed her concerns in a letter to the DOE. In response, a department official wrote, “Prompted by our inquiry, our legal office reviewed the matter and advises that holding such a candidates forum as part of CEC’s regularly scheduled calendar meeting is not an appropriate exercise of the CEC’s statutory powers and duties.”

Comaianni wasn’t available for comment on Wednesday morning. However, during the CEC meeting he alluded to the fact that the DOE didn’t want the forum to take place and said the board decided to go ahead with it anyway so that parents would have a chance to hear directly from the candidates on education issues.

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