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Sensing new political possibility, parent leaders prep campaigns

A handful of parent leaders are exploring their political viability for the upcoming election cycles, hoping to tap into a growing dissatisfaction with the city’s handling of the school system.

Previously, the parents have held seats on their school’s parent-teacher association or served top posts on their district’s Community Education Councils. Some are seasoned organizers and have family histories steeped in New York City politics. Still others are looking beyond the five boroughs as a way to influence education policy.

Two have declared for State Assembly races this fall, but most at the city level have yet to open campaign chests or secure any key endorsements. Few have connections to the political organizations that frequently power candidates into office. But they are testing the waters and, in interviews, they share a common gripe when speaking about their pursuit of a higher office.

“We’ve been completely marginalized by the current administration,” said Noah Gotbaum, who said he is considering a run in the already crowded race for public advocate, a position his stepmother, Betsy Gotbaum, occupied from 2001 to 2009. (His father, Victor Gotbaum, headed DC-37, one of the city’s largest unions, for two decades until 1987.)

“The DOE flat out ignores parents across the board,” said Sam Pirozzolo, a parent council president from Staten Island who is actively campaigning for State Assembly this year.

It’s just one part of a larger, if uncoordinated, organizing effort by groups seeking greater influence over policy decisions once Mayor Bloomberg departs after 12 years in office. Last week, a coalition of unions and advocacy groups announced it would work to galvanize opposition to Bloomberg’s least popular policies, which include closing troubled schools and expanding the number of charter schools, in the mayoral race.

Bloomberg isn’t the only elected official set to leave office in 2013, even though the race to replace him is sure to receive the bulk of public attention. Nineteen City Council members will have to vacate their seats in 2013 because of term limits, and at least two more executive offices, the public advocate and the Manhattan borough president, seem likely to be vacated. Their current occupants, Bill de Blasio and Scott Stringer, have been laying the groundwork for mayoral campaigns for months.

Ocynthia Williams, a South Bronx organizer who works closely with the Coalition for Educational Justice, said she’s “strongly considering” a run at Helen Foster’s City Council seat in the 16th District. Williams, a mother of six, wouldn’t talk specifics, but sources said that she’s being considered by members of the Progressive Caucus, a relatively new council group aligned to the Working Families Party that seeks greater influence in the council.

Sources said the caucus had also been courting parent organizer Mark Winston-Griffith to run for Al Vann’s seat in the influential 36th District, which covers Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. But in a statement this morning Winston-Griffith, a frontrunner, withdrew from the race and said he would instead focus his fulltime efforts on growing out his fledgling education and parent organizing group, the Brooklyn Movement Center.

Christine Annechino, president of District 3’s elected parent council, is considering a run at the City Council seat Gale Brewer is vacating. That race, for the right to represent the Upper West Side, has already drawn three contenders. Annechino, who unseated Gotbaum as the parent council president last year, declined to comment, other than to say she was considering a run.

The only parent leader who appears to be actively fundraising for a City Council bid is Rhonda Joseph, a former CEC president in Brooklyn. So far Joseph has raised nearly $3,000.

Juan Pagan, a parent at Legacy High School who spearheaded protests against the city’s closure decision, told Politicker last week that he would run against Brian Kavanagh for State Assembly for the second time in a row.

There was a time when power brokers got their start in city politics through leadership positions at their child’s school or on their district’s school board. Some of the city’s most powerful elected officials, including Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s education committee, and de Blasio, a likely mayoral candidate, got their start as parent leaders.

“It played a key role,” Jackson said of the nearly two decades he spent on the P.S./I.S. 187 parent association and District 6 school board. Jackson said he will run for Manhattan borough president.

But when mayoral control eliminated the boards, in part because of that influence that politics was playing in education policy, parent leader ambitions “pretty much stopped,” said Mona Davids, a parent who is getting money from the UFT to train parents to advocate on education policy issues. “Parent associations have no power, CECs have no power.”

That could all change under the next mayor. Several of the mayoral candidates have discussed giving new responsbilties to the parents.

Public opinion of Bloomberg’s handling of the school system is low, and hostility to his policies as the end of his term has entered sight has resulted in a resurgence of parent advocacy, said Evan Thies, a political consultant.

“So the next logical step to changing government from the outside is to change it from the inside,” said Thies, whose clients include groups that oppose Bloomberg policies.

Wading into general politics is a different game for parents who are used to raising money for their child’s school, Jackson warned.

“If you’re going to be involved, you have to know the rules of the game,” said Jackson. “If you don’t know the rules of the game, you’ll get used.”

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