All politics is local.
Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives.
At a little after 6 PM on Monday, February 28th, the day before the vote to close PS 114 Assemblyman Maisel’s cell phone rang. It was a Department official informing him that PS 114 would not be closed.
He was amazed.
Months of campaigning, cajoling, advocating, both in public and behind the scenes had worked.
Why was PS 114 successful? Why was PS 114 the only school to avoid being closed?
At the last PEP meeting the auditorium of Brooklyn Tech was packed with opponents of the motion to close yet another long list of schools. In spite of hours of demonstrations, hooting, catcalls, whistle-blowing, passionate speeches, the members of the PEP, the majority of whom serve at the will of the Mayor rubber stamped the decision of the chancellor and closed the schools.
Each of the schools on the closing list, as required by law, had the have an open hearing to gain public input. Most of the meeting were packed with parents, teachers, community members and electeds.
The union mobilized the troops, both teachers and community members. Article after article in the union newspaper, action after action in the streets.
All to no avail, except for PS 114.
What made PS 114 different?
The Justice of their Cause:
Data drives school closing decisions. Each of the 1600 schools in the city is placed in a peer group, the twenty schools above and below based upon schools with similar demographic characteristics. Your Progress Report Grades, to a large extent, is based upon where you fail in your cohort. Many of the proposed closing schools argued that they had large percentages of Special Education, English Language Learners and over-age students, placing them at a significant disadvantage.
At PS 114 the Department had assigned a Leadership Academy graduate who failed as a principal. It took five years until the Department removed her from the school. She drove experienced teachers out of the school, was clueless as to the basics of running a school, and, ran up a $185,000 deficit the Department was deducting, in installments, from the school’s budget.
The school community: parents, teachers, alumni, community members and electeds rallied to support the school. The union organized the rallies and demonstrations and the media coverage. The school, over a hundred years old, housed one of the first gifted programs in the city. Generations of Canarsie residents had been educated at 114. Coalitions had been created at many of the other schools without success, what was different?
At the other schools the electeds showed up, made a speech, riled up the crowd, maybe issued a press release, and moved on. At PS 114 the electeds invested themselves in the process.
For Assemblyman Alan Maisel, a retired teacher and school board member it was a personal cause. While Maisel is a relatively junior member of the legislature he has been politically active for decades and fully understands the nuances of the world of politics, the art of getting things done.
Councilman Lew Fidler speaks in the measured tones of an attorney, logical and persuasive. Fidler also spent a decades involved in local politics. He not only understood the neighborhood, he understood the art of navigating in the morass of the political world.
Over a period of weeks Fidler brought together the local electeds and Department officials and pleaded the school’s case. Scuttlebutt says he met with a Deputy Mayor and laid out the facts, the failure of management to uphold their end.
Quietly and effectively Fidler convinced the decision-makers that PS 114 had a just case.
Over thirty speakers laid out their arguments at the PS 114 hearing. From Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, who pumped up the audience with a passionate speech to former students to parents and students, each poured out their heart.
The message was: give us a chance, set clear goals and time tables, we can achieve.
Shael Suransky, the new # 2 at Tweed, a former NYC teacher, assistant principal and principal closed the meeting with an unusual speech. Shael thanked the audience, insisted that no final decision had been made, assured them that he would consider all the arguments. It sounded like he was speaking from the heart, not pious platitudes.
If there is a hero in this struggle it is clearly Lew Fidler.
In the world of politics, and let’s make it perfectly clear, these are political decisions, politics is an artform. In the thicket of politics, with the thorns, and swamps and quicksand, it takes considerable skill to navigate your way to a victory, and Lew Fidler and his confreres possessed the requisite skills.
Years from now the current students at 114 will regale their friends with a story, how they stood on the steps of their school and prevented it from closing. As adults we hope they will stand on other steps and let their voices be heard in other fights for justice and fairness.