Kids short-changed, candidates charge

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Education was the subject as four of the challengers in the 45th Council District Democratic primary debated at a forum held in East Flatbush.

Present were Erlene King, Dexter McKenzie, Sam Taitt and Jumaane Williams, who are all vying to unseat incumbent City Councilmember Kendall Stewart, who did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict. Also running in the district, but absent from the forum, was a fifth challenger, Ernest Emmanuel.

The forum was sponsored by Imagine New York Schools and Churches United to Save and Heal, and held at New Hope Christian Fellowship church, 4615 Church Avenue.

Overall, the four challengers agreed more than they disagreed, decrying the shortage of resources in area schools. They also objected to the removal of arts and phys ed programs from the mandated curriculum, as well as what they perceived as lack of support for parental involvement in the education of their children.

“The changes the mayor has enacted haven’t benefited our children,” asserted King. “He has put teachers between parents and children.”

“Although I’m for mayoral control, it’s not what it should be,” Williams contended. “They have taken out the voice of parents. We have to make sure that it is reinstated.” Part of the councilmem­ber’s job, he later remarked, is, “to not go along with what the mayor says, what the speaker says, but go along with what the community needs.”

Another problem with mayoral control, Taitt added, is that the educational establishment hires parent coordinators. “If you’re appointed by the education administration, that’s where your loyalty lies, because of fear. They should be appointed by the parents themselves,” he opined.

King said she supported, “setting up training sessions for parents. If they don’t understand their role, they won’t be able to assist kids or speak to teachers.”

“We have to create an environment where art is there, music is there,” stressed McKenzie, “where we challenge them to dream and be imaginative.”

“If, for some reason, it’s not in the nine-to-three program, then it has to be in after school programs,” added Williams.

All of the candidates pointed to inequities in the distribution of resources. That, said Taitt, is why he is running, recalling, during his studies at Brooklyn College, he had observed a “tale of two Brooklyns.

“One of the reasons I’m running is to ensure that the services you see on that part of Bedford Avenue, we have in this part of Brooklyn,” Taitt averred. For schools, he later noted, that means making sure they all “have a level playing field,” and that, in particular, schools in high poverty areas “get financial attention.”

King pointed out that teachers at the same grade level often have vastly different skill levels. “That has to change,” she asserted, telling the group that it is necessary “to change the way teachers are selected. They have to be ready to teach our children.”

Education should be treated as a right, not a privilege, added McKenzie. “We have to get legislation to say out loud with conviction that education is a fundamental right,” he said. “Education is still a privilege whereby, if you have the means, you can purchase a premium education and, if not, you are trapped in a system that is designed for failure for a sub-set of this society.”

McKenzie rejected the idea of “quick fixes to issues that have deeper problems.” In the case of education, he said, children who have trouble learning are often impoverished.

“We have to attack poverty and unemployment at its root cause so we can drive this thing down,” he asserted, noting, “We villainize young people, we lock them up, then, every year, 11,500 of them come back to our neighborhoods, disenfranchised, with their prospects of work dissipated. What do we do? Lock ourselves behind bars and 10 locks and complain there’s too much crime.”

Two of the candidates -- McKenzie and Williams -- cited their own histories as products of the New York City school system.

“I know it’s a jewel that needs to be polished, but it’s a jewel,” Williams stressed. “I have Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD and I made it through the public school system.”

McKenzie said it was public education that had allowed him to go on to a career as a physician, that he had “dedicated to serve the under-served.

“I don’t call myself a community organizer, but a community leader,” McKenzie added, in a clear jab at Williams, who has promoted his own community organizing roots.

Indeed, during the forum, Williams made the point that he was “the only candidate not trying to shift careers, but progressing my career,” in trying to take his community organizing skills to the next level.

The other candidate who called herself a community organizer was King, who told the group that she had gained deep knowledge of the district working for Stewart’s predecessor, Lloyd Henry, for four years.

Perhaps the most surprising moment of the debate occurred when Taitt discussed making sure that students had access to arts education. Recalling that he used to play the organ during morning prayers at school in his native Barbados, he said, “I’d like to see a return to morning prayers. I’d like to see a return to religion in our schools. I’d like to see a return to God in our schools.”

Stewart, in a letter to Glynda Carr, New York executive director for Education Voters, said that he “regret(ted)” missing the forum, and added a quick pitch: “Over the past 7 years I have developed a proven track record of service to my community as well as delivering on promises made. From education, to community economics, housing, healthcare, immigration and senior citizen advocacy, I have been the voice of the community at the City Council.”

In addition, a press release provided to journalists at the event by the Stewart campaign said that Stewart had “put over $70 million in education and education-related services in his district -- including higher education.”

Updated 3:40 pm, October 19, 2011
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