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Mayoral control of schools challenged at Brooklyn education forum

Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a beating in Brooklyn last weekend.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

Parents, politicians and community activists gathered for an education forum and quickly proceeded to criticize the mayor and schools Chancellor Joel Klein for their handling of public schools.

Of particular distress, they said, is mayoral control granting Bloomberg autonomy in molding the school system.

“He has overwhelming power,” former Rep. Major Owens said at Union Temple, 17 Eastern Parkway. “It’s a violation of checks and balances.”

Most problematic is that parents have been shut out of the decision-making process when new policies are implemented and changes are made to their children’s schools, Owens said.

That’s been the case when the city Department of Education (DOE) decided to close large high schools, including South Shore, Tilden and Canarsie.

“Because of the overwhelming power, he’s imposed things without the benefit of discussion, without the benefit of dialogue,” Owens said. “He sits there like a commander in chief.”

Former state education Commissioner Tom Sobol said the mayor should “categorically not” have control of schools.

He said the current system “violates democratic values and cheapens parents.”

“The system is inherently wrong because it excludes legitimate stakeholders from the decision-making process,” Sobol said. “It is inherently wrong because it opens the door for future demigods.”

The current education system is “simply unacceptable,” according to state Senator Eric Adams, who co-hosted the forum with the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID).

By discussing the impact mayoral control has had on public education, forum attendees offered suggestions for how the system should be run when mayoral control sunsets in 2009 and the state legislature can either renew the law or create a new set of rules.

Parents overwhelmingly say they want to play a larger role in the decision-making process.

“There has been a terrible drop-off in parental involvement and no one is accountable in this system. They made the principals the fallout guys,” said Cecilia Blewer, who has two children in local public schools and is a member of the Independent Commission for Public Education (iCOPE), a Brooklyn-based organization of parents and community activists.

“Parents are our first teachers,” Sobol said. “Schools must recognize that and not treat them as political nuisances to be dealt with.”

There were suggestions that a single official group be created to represent parents when the DOE makes decisions about new policies or programs. There were also requests that parents receive training in education matters so they can appropriately lobby for their children’s schools when dealing with DOE officials, who are well-versed in school workings.

A graduating high school student said the DOE should also ask students for their input because they “are directly affected by every change in education policy.”

“Being a student has taught us what works and what doesn’t,” said Nzhingha Nkrumah, a senior at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in Manhattan and a member of Youth Researchers for a New Education System (YERNS), a student-run group.

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