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City effort to enlist parents in politics began months ago

For months, Department of Education employees have been trying to mobilize parents to public meetings and to sign petitions in support of city political goals, parent coordinators said today.

Evidence of that effort came to light yesterday after a staff member of the DOE’s parent outreach office distributed a petition to hundreds of parent coordinators urging state lawmakers to abolish the current seniority-based teacher layoff system. City officials renounced the petition and said that political organizing would stop going forward.

But parent coordinators from schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens said today that the Office of Family Information and Action’s push to have parent coordinators politically mobilize parents began months ago and that the message was spread by several OFIA staffers. The coordinators spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their positions at their schools.

In January, OFIA held a parent organizing workshop for parent coordinators in Manhattan. Staffers did not mention advocating against the current layoff system at that meeting, said a parent coordinator who shared detailed notes taken at the session. Instead, staff focused on asking the coordinators to build relationships with satisfied parents who would be willing to show support for the DOE at Panel for Educational Policy meetings.

“I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, honestly, and I didn’t really trust my own ears, so I wrote things down,” the parent coordinator said.

OFIA officials said that they were frustrated that the panel meetings — which have been frequently contentious — have been dominated by parents angry at city policies. OFIA staff encouraged parent coordinators to bring “Happy Harry” parents to citywide meetings, according to the parent coordinator’s notes, rather than “Angry Sally” parents.

Another parent coordinator said she attended a training session a month later, as the city’s debate over seniority layoffs was heating up. One of the items on the session’s agenda was “parent organizing.” Both Jaclyn Berryman — the OFIA staffer who distributed the petition against seniority-based layoffs this week — and Melissa Harris, a senior organizer for community and strategic partnerships at OFIA, spoke.

According to the parent coordinator’s notes, Berryman led a discussion of identifying a “core base” of parents. Harris told the coordinators that they would receive a petition around March 20 in advance of the public school system’s Lobby Week in Albany. She also asked them to launch a letter writing campaign with their parents urging lawmakers not to cut state education spending and to end seniority-based layoffs.

Several parent coordinators said that while they have organized parents to attend Lobby Week in Albany in previous years, this was the first time they had been asked to advocate a specific position. The position of parent coordinator was created under former Chancellor Joel Klein to serve as a liaison between schools and families.

City officials did not dispute the coordinators’ accounts but refused to say who in the DOE started the push for parent lobbying or whether the organizing had been approved by OFIA’s director Ojeda Hall. A spokesman would say only that the department stood by its statement yesterday, which said that neither Mayor Michael Bloomberg nor Chancellor Cathie Black approved the political organizing.

The city teachers union, which has been battling to retain seniority layoff protections, has strongly criticized the DOE for allowing the petition to be circulated. Today union chief Michael Mulgrew formally asked the Special Commissioner of Investigation, Richard Condon, to examine the city’s political organizing.

“Although the DOE presently indicates that it has abandoned its use of the above-described petitions — presumably in recognition of their wrongful nature — investigation into this matter is still warranted in order to determine the extent to which public resources were diverted to this end and who at the DOE authorized this conduct,” Mulgrew wrote.

Letter to Condon 3-17-11