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Liu stands his ground, Weiner impresses in charter-led forum

Some mayoral candidates who have been critical of charter schools avoided uncomfortable questions by skipping a forum hosted by charter school advocates Tuesday night. But Comptroller John Liu not only showed up but said he would issue a potentially crippling blow to the charter sector if he becomes mayor.

Liu said he would charge rent to charter schools that occupy space in city buildings, reversing a Bloomberg administration policy of awarding unused space in school buildings to charter schools that want to operate there. The policy has allowed the city’s charter sector to flourish.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former congressman Anthony Weiner — who emerged as the audience’s clear favorites — both said they would not consider charging rent, something that some critics of charter schools want the next mayor to do.

“The model of charter schools is in part based on not paying rent,” Quinn said. “So if you say you’re going to pay rent, then you’re not going to have charters.”

Sal Albanese, a former teacher who is mounting a long-shot mayoral candidacy, played to the crowd by saying that he is open to withdrawing his support for a moratorium on the creation of charter schools if communities are involved in the creation process. He also said he would not charge existing charter schools rent.

“The last thing I want to do is erode their ability to provide the services to children and to parents,” he said.

All six leading Democratic candidates had been confirmed for the forum, which was sponsored by Families for Excellent Schools, the New York City Charter School Center, and other charter school advocates. But earlier in the day, former comptroller Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio both backed out, citing scheduling conflicts. Thompson and de Blasio are seen as the strongest contenders for the teachers union’s endorsement, which it is set to make next week.

Liu is also angling for the union’s endorsement after winning support from DC-37, the labor union that represents many school workers. On Tuesday evening, his strategy appeared to hinge on demonstrating a willingness to stand his ground in front of a hostile audience.

He said that because district schools shoulder some costs that charter schools do not, letting charter schools use public space rent-free puts them on an unequal playing field. He also said the tension that co-locations create between parents, teachers and communities is not worth it.

“It has distracted away from the learning environment that should be in each and one of those school buildings,” he said, in comments that prompted the only boos of the night. “If we want to have charter schools they should be community-grown charter schools with their own space.”

Each candidate spent about 25 minutes answering questions posed by charter school parents, whom Families for Excellent Schools is trying to mobilize in the mayoral election. Quinn and Weiner each said, as they have before, that they support continuing to allow charter schools to use public space. But each said tensions between district and charter schools could be reduced.

Quinn said she would do a better job than the Bloomberg administration of making sure resources are distributed equally to all schools in each building.

“I want to make the process one that’s more transparent, more consistent, and better managed.” And then she added with a laugh, “I just want to make sure I’m saying the same thing in every room on this topic.”

Weiner said he blamed both sides for allowing tension and controversy to proliferate.

“Here’s what’s going to be different in my administration … I’m going try to turn down the temperature on this conversation, to get to a place that is less us against them, the traditional public schools versus the charters, the UFT versus the reformers,” Weiner said. “Too many people on both sides of the debate benefit from it. The charter movement raises money off it. The UFT organizes parents around it.”

After Weiner left the stage and took questions from the media, a parent walked up to him and thanked him for wanting to bridge the divide between charter and district schools. Da Abi Renelon, a charter school parent, said she doesn’t believe that simply opening new charter schools is the answer to fixing the city’s school system.

“There are a lot of key points you said in there that are dead on,” she told the former congressman. “We have to start working on schools that are failing. That’s the problem I found with this administration … is that we’re doing charters versus district schools and what we have is parents going after parents.”

After the forum ended, parents stood outside waiting for the buses that the forum organizers had arranged for the hundreds of attendees. Many discussed the candidates.

Charter school parent Amanda Blair said she was leaning more toward Quinn and Weiner and was surprised by how much she liked Weiner. “I came with my preconceived ideas about Weiner, but he’s well polished, he’s a good politician,” she said.

Charlene Philip, who has a child at Achievement First East New York Charter School, stood with a couple other parents discussing which candidates they liked and didn’t like.

“I am more geared toward Weiner. Quinn was a little on the border for me. John Liu, I don’t think so. Sal Albanese, he’s too much of a hand talker,” she said, waving her hands around. “People who talk like this, I don’t trust them.”

The other parents agreed that it was a toss up between Quinn and Weiner, but mostly they liked Weiner. “I was surprised he came out so strong,” Philip added.