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Marshall, Thompson lead fight against school cuts

At one point during Friday’s three-hour city council hearing on educational budget cuts, Queens Borough President Helen Marshall and Queens Board of Education representative Terri Thomson shared the table and microphone, waiting for hard-hitting questions from council members.

Instead the pair, who helped ensure a strong turnout at the hearing from Queens parents and students angry about potential budget cuts to the borough’s overcrowded schools, got high praise from nearly all corners of the Council’s Education Committee and very few tough questions.

The most animated praise for Marshall and Thomson, who testified at the first of two days of council hearings on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed $693 million education budget cuts, came from City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan).

Jackson took the microphone, and after a long, impromptu speech in which he criticized the chronic underfunding of the city’s public schools, lauded Marshall and Thomson.

“I challenge every borough president and every Board of Education member to do the same like you are doing: to show up and fight for our children,” he said to loud applause from the audience.

Jackson, who helped initiate the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case to force the state to increase its share of funding to the city’s public schools, also commended the crowd of more than 150 parents and students who came to City Hall Friday.

“If you don’t do it, who will?” Jackson said of the need to fight for education resources.

The overcrowding in Queens schools, the most jammed in the city, was the focus of much of the hearing as Thomson described the especially poor conditions of the borough’s high schools. Queens high schools are operating at 22 percent above capacity, or about 14,000 seats short. There currently is a citywide shortage of 42,000 seats in all grades. Queens leads all five boroughs with a deficit of nearly 22,000 seats.

One student from John Adams HS in Ozone Park told the Education Committee about her school’s split sessions in which older students starting going to school as early as 6 a.m. for 7 a.m. classes and younger students start classes at about noon.

Thomson said “there’s not a parent in this room who’s happy to send their child to school at 5:30 a.m. in the dark. We’re putting a whole generation of our high school students at risk.”

Marshall testified that conditions like those at John Adams limit Queens’ students.

“How can we expect our children to learn in an environment like this?” she asked. “How do we expect them to compete in a global economy?”

After her testimony Marshall stuck around listening with rapt attention as parents and passionate students testified against city budget cuts for schools.

A former teacher, Marshall seems to have bucked the city’s current education politics in recent weeks by speaking out in favor of keeping local school boards and praising the beleaguered School Construction Authority at a time when both have been hammered as inefficient and wasteful.

“I know how to stand up when I think something is wrong,” she said, noting that she represents a borough of 2.2 million people. “If I can’t stand up and look out for them, then what good am I?”

Marshall said the problem with city schools is not a question of mayoral control or abolishing the Board of Education, a hot topic to be decided by the state Legislature in the next few months.

“They’re spinning their wheels about governance when we need to be funding our school,” Marshall said of the City Council and Bloomberg.

The borough president also rebutted Bloomberg’s claims that the Board of Education could make significant budget cuts without affecting classroom services.

“He doesn’t understand what it takes to educate a child. An awful lot of people are required in the system to make it work,” she said. “It’s not the structure that’s the problem, it’s the money.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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