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At PEP meeting, the probable next mayor's promises loom large

At a meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy, parents and elected officials opposed to changes to their schools let the members know — and many said they were already looking ahead to a Mayor de Blasio to review the decisions.

Only after more than five hours of testimony and discussion did one of the final PEP meetings under Mayor Bloomberg end with the approval of 12 new schools, including five new charter schools operating in public space, and 17 new co-locations to begin in 2014.

Dozens came to protest proposed changes to I.S. 78 Roy H. Mann, wearing bright red T-shirts with the phrase, “Together We Make a Difference.” The Panel approved the addition of a Success Academy elementary charter school in the school’s Bergen Beach building, along with a reduction in Roy H. Mann’s size.

From their public comments emerged a complicated picture of Roy H. Mann. Parents blamed a succession of principals and a lack of staff cooperation for what they acknowledged was low enrollment at the school.

“We did — we do not — look good on paper,” said PTA president Christine Kroening, who has seventh-grade twins at the school. In recent years, “Nobody was working together,” she said. Another parent said that a year ago he wouldn’t have bothered to attend the PEP meeting because the school was “horrible for the community.”

“It’s had a rough few — 10 — years,” said Thomas Callahan, who has one daughter in seventh grade at Roy H. Mann, another who will be at the school next year, and another who graduated from the school.

But with a new principal at the helm, the enthusiastic, red-shirted supporters insisted the school was turning over a new leaf.

Callahan, a retired sanitation officer, said the tight-knit community was working hard to improve the school, and he didn’t understand how the school could be troubled enough to need such drastic changes. “It hasn’t been bad to me,” he said.

Another proposal for a Success Academy elementary school, this one inside of the Murry Bergtraum High School building, brought dozens of detractors to the microphones, including City Councilwoman Margaret Chin. Students said the addition of the Stephen T. Mather Building Arts and Craftsmanship High School this year has already been stressful, and teacher and UFT chapter leader John Elfrank-Dana pointed to the school’s lack of a playground and the building’s intense security due to its proximity to One Police Plaza as making the site unsuitable for young children.

Like with Roy H. Mann, many speakers acknowledged that Bergtraum has faced significant problems in recent years.

Though the crowd wasn’t nearly as raucous or large as some past PEP crowds, it did fill much of the lower level of the Prospect Heights campus auditorium. The panel voted on an especially large number of proposals, which have been criticized as an eleventh-hour attempt by the Bloomberg administration to set changes in motion before a new mayor takes over. (The panel will meet again for an unusual second meeting this month to vote on even more proposals that would take effect in 2014 and beyond.)

At the meeting, City Councilman David Greenfield described the Success Academy-heavy agenda as “a rush toward favoritism toward charter school operators to give them schools at the last minute.”

But even these votes may not be completely secure, as mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio has said he would review school space decisions made at the end of Bloomberg’s tenure. That emboldened many to say that these fights were just beginning.

In a fiery speech, City Councilwoman Letitia James, who is likely to become the city’s public advocate next year, invoked the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision to charge the Panel with setting up a system that was separate and unequal. She promising litigation if the proposals passed.

Hours after her speech, all 23 proposals did pass, as usual. (The panel is dominated by mayoral appointees and has never rejected a city proposal.)

In contrast to James, Roy H. Mann supporter Callahan played it cool. Standing in the back of the auditorium to watch the proceedings, he said the community expected the vote in favor of the co-location but would take full advantage of de Blasio’s promises.

“We’ll be back in January with the new mayor,” he said. “We’re going to fight.”

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