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Usual activists plan to keep low profile at tonight's PEP meeting

Chancellor Dennis Walcott is so ready for yet another raucous Panel for Educational Policy meeting tonight that he has reserved the Prospect Heights Campus auditorium until 9 a.m. Friday.

“We’re prepared to stay all night and into the morning,” Walcott told Rosanna Scotto and Greg Kelly, the “Good Day New York” crew at Fox 5 during an appearance this morning.

But there’s a chance that tonight could actually be much less heated than some of the panel meetings that have taken place over the past school year.

That’s because two key organizers behind the protests, rallies, and theatrics at those meetings are taking a backseat tonight. The teachers union is largely staying away and Occupy the DOE protesters who have disrupted previous meetings say they plan to keep a low profile. Only a new group, Students Activists United, which grew out of the Alliance for Quality Education and the Coalition for Educational Justice’s efforts against school closures, has plans for an organized protest.

The groups cite political and practical reasons for stepping back, and seasoned activists also say they are suffering from protest fatigue after shouting themselves hoarse at panel meetings whose outcomes seem predetermined.

“After witnessing so many bad PEP meetings, no one has any hope that this will not be another rubber-stamp approval across the board,” said Kevin Kearns, a teacher at Lehman High School in the Bronx.

Instead of protesting at the panel meeting, the UFT is hosting a rally miles away on the steps of City Hall “to protest Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to close 26 schools despite fierce community opposition,” according to a press advisory. The City Hall rally takes place at 4:30 p.m., giving teachers time to attend the 6 p.m. meeting if they want to. But the union’s absence is notable, given that it has in the past organized a caravan of buses to bring hundreds of members to panel meetings in protest.

The Occupy DOE movement, a faction of the Occupy Wall Street movement that dominated and even derailed education department meetings this year, is also not shooting for a starring role.

“We want to let the schools take the lead,” said John Yanno, a teacher at the Secondary School of Law in Brooklyn, who helped organize teacher “grade-ins” in Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy protests last fall.

But even teachers at the now-24 turnaround schools said they’re not planning any mass protest. They’ve organized dozens of rallies throughout the four-month ordeal, but no such event was planned for tonight.

“Most of us plan to go the traditional route of just giving public testimony in support of our schools,” said Kearns, who emceed an all-turnaround-school protest outside the Department of Education’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters that attracted teachers from only a handful of schools.

Organizers offered several reasons for taking a lower-key approach to tonight’s meeting.

One of them is political. When the Department of Education removed nine schools from its turnaround list, some took that as a small token of political good will.

“Getting those seven schools was a big deal,” said one organizer about the A- and B-rated schools pulled from the list earlier this month. “People want more, but it was a smart move by the administration to do that. It was an egregious decision to put them on there in the first place.”

Yanno also suggested that the union’s growing focus on the 2013 mayoral elections had made it less likely to take to the streets. “We’re going into an election season and the UFT’s tactic for this is to get people behind elected officials,” he said.

Activists are also feeling protest fatigue after a rally-packed spring and are simply having a hard time mustering the energy to protest against the panel, which has never rejected a single mayoral proposal.

“People are so frustrated with what’s going on,” said another organizer. “They have no hope anymore that this administration is going to change course. They’re just getting to the point where they have to show up and be heard but that’s about it because they’re just going to go through with these policies anyway.”

A third explanation could be that the groups are hoping to avoid a showdown of the type that overshadowed the Feb. 9 meeting where the panel voted to close or shrink 23 schools. Three separate groups that evening organized protests, and while the collective effort was disruptive, it also revealed a deep rift between the Occupy DOE protesters, who pledged to shut down the meeting by using their trademark “people’s mic,” and the UFT leadership. The competing demonstrations derailed the UFT’s protest in a scenario the union might be hesitant to repeat.

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