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A trace of independence appears at Panel for Educational Policy

Members of a citywide school board displayed flashes of independence last night, a rare event for a group critics frequently deride as a rubber-stamp body.

For the first time in the Panel for Educational Policy’s history, protests from school leaders and panel members pressured education officials into withdrawing a proposal from consideration.

Officials pulled back plans to eliminate the sixth grade of P.S. 126 in the Bronx, turning it into K-5 school — an idea that angered those who want to expand the school and others who worried about the lack of middle school choices in the area.

Department of Education officials said the scale-back was meant to alleviate overcrowding in the school, but it could wait. “There’s enough space for it to be K-6 for one more year,” said Debra Kurshan, head of the DOE’s Office of Portfolio Planning.

The panel also voted to postpone another resolution, ignoring pleas from DOE officials to approve it immediately. Several panel members — including some appointed by the mayor — said they needed more information.

The now-postponed proposal centers on P.S. 60 in the Bronx, home to New School 1 (K-3) and New School 2 (4-5), both of which the DOE wants to expand to serve grades K-5. Though the schools’ principals support the expansions, panel members were dissuaded from approving the proposal by criticism that parents and community members are divided over the plan. The DOE says the plan has parents’ support, but critics say that information distributed by the department has confused the community members.

“The community is divided because of the misinformation given to parents,” said an assistant principal at New School 2.

Panel members did vote to approve a controversial school bus contract, giving a three-year extension to the Logan bus company, which was identified in a federal investigation as having bribed bus inspectors. DOE Chief Executive for School Support Services Eric Goldstein said the company had “been clean for some time,” and that a monitor selected by a special investigator would oversee the company’s conduct.

Challenged on why the contract had not been competitively bid, the DOE’s general counsel, Michael Best, said competitive bidding would have been too difficult because all of the city’s school bus contracts expired at the same time.

Unconvinced, panel members Patrick Sullivan and Anna Santos voted against the contract and two other panel members abstained. (Sullivan and Santos are both borough president appointees to the panel, from Manhattan and the Bronx respectively.)

“This may be a smart thing to do, but without more information, I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad idea,” Sullivan said.

The bulk of the meeting, which ran four hours long, was dominated by teachers, parents, and students from schools the DOE has marked for closure. One by one they came to the microphone, some holding graphs and charts of graduation rates and test scores as proof that their schools are not failing, others listing the string of principals they’d gone through and the funding cuts they’d managed.

“We don’t meet the criteria for closure,” said Angelyn Justian, a third year math and business teacher at the Global Enterprise Academy in the Bronx. “We have a new principal and she’s only been given one year to improve the school.”

Vice president of academic high schools for the teachers union, Leo Casey, accused the DOE of “taking a machete to the high schools,” after high grades on report cards for the elementary and middle schools made them impossible to close.

The change in school governance law has reshaped panel meetings by giving members the authority to approve certain contracts and changes in how space in schools is used. More power has not made the panel members more likely to reject proposals — to this day, they’ve never voted an idea down — but it has forced them to come face-to-face with irate residents on a growing number of complex issues. The meetings are louder, run longer, and are increasingly a public relations headache for the department.

Audience members booed and shouted over panel members throughout the meeting last night, leaving DOE employees with looks of exasperation. Though Chancellor Joel Klein spent much of the meeting on his Blackberry, he looked up and began laughing when John Felder, a member of the school leadership team for P.S. 126, addressed the crowd.

“We blew an opportunity to get rid of Joel Klein by not voting for Bill Thompson,” Felder said.

Next month’s PEP meeting will be held at Brooklyn Technical High School and will determine the fate of the 20 schools the department has proposed closing.

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