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High-ranked District 26 fights school regrouping

Hundreds of parents packed a community forum last Thursday night demanding answers to what Mayor Michael Bloomberg's changes in school governance would mean for children in School District 26, the city's top-ranked district.

Under the mayor's plan, District 26 would be grouped with Districts 25, 28 and 29 into Region 3, one of 10 new "instructional divisions" to be created in the city.

But few in the auditorium at MS 158 in Bayside seemed satisfied by assurances from Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott that district lines would remain intact despite the groupings.

"Our children were not made on an assembly line," said Dave Pinzon, former PTA president at MS 172 in Floral Park, criticizing the plan as one-size-fits-all.

District 26 covers schools in Bayside, Little Neck, Douglaston, Glen Oaks, Floral Park and parts of Auburndale, Fresh Meadows and Bellerose.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside), one of several northeast Queens politicians who disputed everything from the level of parental involvement provided for in the mayor's plan to whether it was even legal to take away the districts.

Melvyn Meer, head of Community Board 11's ad hoc education committee and one of the forum's organizers, praised District 26 Superintendent Claire McIntee to thunderous applause.

Pinzon and others questioned the need to restructure the entire city school system when not all districts were failing.

"It's one city," said Walcott, who noted that more than 200 top-performing schools would still maintain their independent curricula.

Walcott called the restructuring a "win-win" that would help principals by hiring a business manager, math and English coaches and a parent coordinator for each school.

Some parents contended that the presence of so many new staffers would only confuse communication between parents and school officials instead of making it easier.

Another concern was the fate of the District 26 magnet program in the absence of District 26.

Walcott said the program would continue, but it would be administered at the regional level.

With restructuring scheduled to go into effect July 1, opposition to the plan has taken on a particular sense of urgency.

The forum was organized by District 26 parent associations and Community Board 11, which passed a resolution at its February meeting asking that existing state education laws, which provide for the city to maintain the community school districts, be followed.

Echoing a refrain heard from parents throughout the night, state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) asked, "Where did [the mayor's] plan come from?

"It didn't come from the Legislature. It didn't come from the task force," said Padavan of the mayor's plan, released weeks before a state task force on school reform came out with its own report.

One way to preserve the school districts would be for the state Legislature to pass a law mandating that the districts' individual superintendents be retained, said the senator, who chairs the Senate Majority Task Force on New York City School Governance.

A lawsuit by state Sen. Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) was seeking a court injunction against the implementation of restructuring, Padavan said.

Even after the question-and-answer session with Walcott, most parents seemed skeptical about the restructuring plans.

"I'm not convinced," said Claire Smith, 37, who moved from Virginia back to her childhood home of Bayside so her school-age daughter could be in the educationally rich District 26.

"Now you're telling me you're watering it down. Why?" she asked. "I want answers."

Walcott said he was willing to return for another forum and stay as long as was necessary to answer questions.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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