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Weprin holds meeting to back city teachers

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As the battle over the city’s budget winds toward its end, proponents of education are preparing for the last shot at saving their public schools.

City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) participated in his local version of the town hall meetings that the United Federation of Teachers had organized across the borough with the Queens delegation of Council members.

Weprin spoke with the teachers and parents who gathered at the auditorium of PS 205, at 75-25 Bell Blvd. in Oakland Gardens, last Thursday about two issues: teacher layoffs and the city Department of Education’s new teacher evaluation tests.

“I can tell you this: The No. 1 priority with my colleagues in the Council is preventing layoffs,” Weprin said, even in the face of cuts to daycare, libraries and firehouses.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year calls for the elimination of 2,000 teaching positions through attrition in addition to another 4,100 through layoffs. The councilman said he thought at first the proposal was a political move to give the mayor leverage with the UFT on its policy of last in, first out.

“Now, I don’t know,” he said. “Can I guarantee no layoffs? No, I can’t now.”

Rich Farkas, the UFT’s vice president for middle schools, said he was a principal at a school in Brooklyn in 1975 when some 15,000 teachers were laid off.

“That was different. It was a real fiscal crisis,” he said.

Farkas recalled class sizes growing to 50 students as well as cuts to art and music programs.

“They stopped the things that make an education an education,” he said. “It took 30 years to recover. We don’t need to do this again.”

Farkas suggested that the city’s $3.2 billion surplus could be used to compensate for the $270 million those teachers’ jobs would save. Weprin said that what is referred to as the surplus is in reality a health care trust fund designed to protect the city in the face of rising pension costs.

“It is sort of a rainy day fund and as someone said, it’s raining,” Weprin said.

The other topic of the afternoon was the standardized tests the DOE is developing to evaluate teachers for the Race to the Top grant, for which the state received $700 million — $256 million of which has been allocated to the city. The DOE is allowed to use 10 percent, or $25.6 million, to develop a means to evaluate teachers.

The DOE did not respond to requests for comment.

Don Freeman is a retired principal and Douglaston resident with the group Time Out From Testing who opposes the DOE’s development of 16 new high-stakes tests to fulfill this requirement.

“Whenever you get into high-stakes testing, the teachers teach to the test and the test is no longer legitimate,” he said. “It’s an insane use of testing.”

At its May 26 meeting, CDEC 26 passed a resolution condemning the tests, proposing instead that teachers be evaluated by academic goals.

Weprin said he agreed.

“There’s no reason we should be laying off teachers, which — unlike progress reports — actually affect how students learn,” the councilman said. “The bottom-line message I want to get out there is let the teachers teach.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 10:50 am, October 12, 2011
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