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At PEP co-locations vote, testiness from both sides of the aisle

The major item on the agenda at tonight’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting is more than a dozen charter school co-location plans. The plans are at the heart of a lawsuit, filed by the teachers union and NAACP, to halt school closures and stop some charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding.

The PEP already voted on the plans once, but in response to the lawsuit, the Department of Education revised all of them over the last several weeks, seeking to equalize allocations of shared space between charter schools and district schools. If the panel approves the new plans tonight, some of the equity charges made in the lawsuit could be neutralized.

I’ll be filing reports throughout the meeting.

10:30 p.m. Panel members have voted and, as expected, have approved all of the co-location plans before them tonight. Votes for seven of the plans each received four votes in opposition, from appointees of borough presidents. Those plans were for the co-locations at P368, Teaching Firms of America Charter School at P.S. 308; Democracy Prep 3 at P.S. 154; Promise Academy I and II at the Choir Academy of Harlem; Harlem Success Academy 1 at P.S. 123; and Upper West Success Academy at Brandeis High School. But with a majority of panel members being mayoral appointees, the opposition was easily outvoted.

Last week, lawyers debating the UFT-NAACP lawsuit called today “D-Day” for the case. That’s because the space-sharing plans approved tonight address many of the complaints lodged against the original plans in the lawsuit. Whether and how Judge Paul Feinman, who is assigned to the suit, takes the new plans into account remains to be seen, but last week he signaled that he might when he deferred making a final decision about whether to halt the city’s co-location plans.

9:45 p.m. Many of the testimonies tonight have criticized a few specific co-location plans: for P.S. 308 and P368, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brandeis High School. P.S. 308 graduate Aquila Raiford, who went on to attend Stuyvesant High School and then Dartmouth College, testified that it was the quality education she received at Clara Cardwell that paved her road. She returned to P.S. 308 as an English teacher and now opposes any additional co-location at her school.

“Bringing in any school inside 308 is going to ruin the learning environment,” she said after her testimony. She pointed to safety issues of placing young children of incoming Teaching Firms of America Charter School on the building’s third floor.

9:30 p.m. As promised, I’m posting video (above) from the altercation earlier tonight between Hazel Dukes of the NAACP and charter school advocates.

Dukes actually found herself in the middle of two separate physical altercations with two different charter school advocates after each personally addressed comments she made earlier this month that referred to charter parents as “slave masters.” In his testimony, Invictus Preparatory founder Cliff Thomas, who is African-American, said he resented Dukes’ comments. Immediately afterward, Dukes confronted Thomas. “You went to Harvard on my back,” Dukes said. “Not because you’re smart, not because you work hard.”

Later, two parents from the Success Charter Network had to be physically separated from Dukes in the back of the auditorium. One of the parents, Kelly Alday of Bronx Success Academy, had just finished her testimony, which once again personally called out Dukes for her comments. In the address, the woman turned towards Dukes and directly addressed her. That was enough to spark Dukes, who rose from her seat at the front of the auditorium and met the woman at the end. The confrontation lasted for about 30 seconds before security and others stepped between the them.

Afterward, Dukes defended her actions. “I don’t regret it at all.”

Dukes also said that she has met with several of the charter leaders whose schools are challenged in the lawsuit. The one school leader that hasn’t met with her? Eva Moskowitz, of the Success charters. “They are the ones who are dividing the Harlem community,” Dukes said.

8:30 p.m. The evening hasn’t exactly been warm, but tensions just flared in the back of the room as Hazel Dukes, of the NAACP, and a charter school parent engaged in an up-close, highly heated exchange. Video is forthcoming.

8:15 p.m. The first public comments were from members of the Community Education Councils, the elected parent councils in each district. District 15’s Jim Devor, District 13’s Khem Irby, District 3’s Noah Gotbaum, and others all drew rounds of applause as they criticize DOE policies.

One exception was Bryan Davis, from District 6 in Washington Heights and Inwood, who attacked the motives behind the NAACP and UFT lawsuit. He was nearly drowned out by jeers by the time he uttered the following line at the end of his testimony: “It is time the NAACP and UFT came clean about this lawsuit and call it what it is: a job protection lawsuit for the adults.”

Until well into the meeting, no politicians were in attendance and just one City Council member was represented. (The council is currently hashing out last-minute budget details before it votes on the city budget this week.) An aide from Councilman Al Vann’s office, Mandela Jones, spoke in opposition to two charter school co-locations in his district, Bedford-Stuyvesant. He rejected both of the DOE’s revised plans for the schools and pleaded for the PEP to vote no. “Since the Department of Education in crafting and putting forth these proposals has ignored the concerns of our community, I urge the panel to exhibit independence and reject these proposals solely based on their merits,” he said.

Then, Gale Brewer, a councilwoman from the Upper West Side, arrived directly from the Brandeis High School graduation. Speaking about the a co-location plan to place a Success charter school inside the Brandeis building, Brewer raised issues about Success’ incoming enrollment and whether it has an adequate number of English Language Learners. She also said that her district needs more high schools, not more elementary schools, which the Success school would be.

Local NAACP leader Hazel Dukes, whose fiery rhetoric got her in trouble earlier this month, spoke calmly and civilly to PEP members. “We come tonight to respectfully ask that you reconsider co-locations” while the DOE focuses on equitably allocating school resources to all of New York City’s children, she said. “We come tonight to be a partner in education all the children in this city. We respect each of you as you look and review and maybe visit the schools.” She said she has visited schools where co-locations are disputed.

7:30 p.m. Chancellor Dennis Walcott has enjoyed something of a honeymoon in his appearances at panel meetings: While the audience is frequently made up of critics of the Department of Education, the chancellor himself has remained off-limits to the harshest criticism.

But not tonight. Walcott’s introduction drew jeers from the crowd, which is predominantly made up of people who oppose the Bloomberg administration’s education reform agenda.

It got even testier after Walcott stepped down from the stage to address the audience. Within moments, people spoke over Walcott, who was recapping the highlights of a “busy” month for the Department of Education. They challenged him on, among other things, the botched elections for parent leaders, the threat — now passed — of teacher layoffs, and, of course, the charter school co-locations.

Walcott fired back, threatening a few attendees with dismissal if they continued to interrupt him.

People from both sides of the lawsuit are in the crowd. Several members of the NAACP, including New York President Hazel Dukes, are in the center of the auditorium. A small group of parents from the Success Charter Network, which has been integral to organizing protests against the UFT and NAACP, are sitting stage left.