Ed Dept Ripped Over Waning Interest in Parent Elections

The deadline for city parents to apply and run for positions on Community Education Councils that sign off on school zoning changes and play an advisory role is Friday — but the city is still struggling with waning interest in the posts.

Fewer than 450 parents applied for 325 seats citywide as of Thursday, according to the Department of Education.

Each of the 32 local community councils representing elementary and middle schools consists of nine elected members, plus two appointed by the borough presidents and a non-voting student member. There are also citywide councils for high school parents, parents of English Language Learners and parents of special education students.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said the lack of interest shows the department hasn't provided the councils with enough support. He called its Office for Family Information and Action a "disaster," and said outside groups should work with parents instead.

"We can show them how to engage parents working with existing parent associations in the schools," Stringer said. "And we can do it on the cheap. It'd probably the best savings the DOE has had. And they don't need to even hire an outside consultant."

Stringer sent a letter to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott Thursday recommending more outreach and recruitment, training of Community Education Council members and ongoing guidance to help them understand school budgets and zoning.

In a statement, Walcott replied that he has "repeatedly spoken about the importance of parent involvement in our schools and have had several meetings with parents and CEC members from a variety of communities."

"I look forward to working with Borough President Scott Stringer and other elected officials to ensure that they play a vibrant role in our efforts to increase parent engagement," Walcott said.

Department of Education officials said the agency has advertised in community newspapers in numerous languages to attract parents. It's also sent teams to communities with low turnout, and partnered with the Housing Authority and the Department of Youth and Community Development to reach more residents.

But as of Thursday, the agency said there were still five CEC's without the seven candidates needed to fill a quorum. The DOE wouldn't give a breakdown but said District 19 in Brooklyn had the fewest number of candidates. District 1 in Lower Manhattan had the most. District 3 on Manhattan's West Side, which had trouble attracting candidates, now has enough for a quorum.

Noah Gotbaum, the president of the CEC for District 3, claimed the DOE doesn't give parents enough reasons to want to spend long hours volunteering on the councils.

"The bottom line is the CECs have been emasculated," he said. "The groups have very little power, and they're not listened to when we do stand up and say this is what we want. We're completely ignored."

Gotbaum, a frequent critics of the DOE, said CECs have been ignored when they opposed closing schools or having charter schools share space with regular district schools. He also accused the department of deliberately obstructing parent involvement.

"The DOE has, since the very beginning, has put out false eligibility information," he said. "They've put out information which limits the number of candidates."

Gotbaum said parents of children in grades K-8 are allowed to run for Community Education Councils, as well as anyone who's had a child in the school system within the past two years. That could mean parents of 10th graders in some cases. But he this information is sometimes difficult to determine from the DOE, he said.

This is how the eligibility rules are explained on the election site:

"Parents are eligible to serve on the CEC for their local community school district if their child is currently in grades K-8 at a school under the jurisdiction of the community school district, or if their child was in grades K-8 at a school under the jurisdiction of the community school district within the past two years."

The DOE acknowledged an earlier version suggested only parents of children in grades K-7 could run, and officials say this current explanation is accurate.