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Cheerful mood, but hints of challenges to come, at Fariña's first PEP meeting

Polite applause, cheers of support, and shared optimism greeted the Department of Education’s new-look Panel for Educational Policy Wednesday night during its first meeting under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But before the night was over, there were plenty of signs that more contentious issues lay in the near future. Even the first words out of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s mouth acknowledged that the policy-setting body’s meetings could soon turn less friendly.

“I’d like to say that it’s a pleasure to be here and I better say it today because I don’t know what the other evenings will be like,” Fariña joked.

The most urgent issues that Fariña and the panel will have to deal with are more than 50 school siting plans that were approved late last year. The plans address an array of new schools or grade expansions that the Bloomberg administration scheduled for next year. Given the de Blasio administration’s pledge to scrutinize and potentially reverse those proposals, school leaders are waiting for cues from the department about whether they should proceed with hiring teachers, recruiting students, and planning their budget.

“The problem is, the longer we let this go, the harder it’s going to be to stop the wheels from turning,” said Fred Baptiste, the panel member appointed by the Brooklyn borough president, who wants the panel to review the plans. “This has to be rushed, this has to be a priority. We need to start addressing this now. It has to come to the top of her list.”

Fariña told reporters before the meeting that new school principals and their founding teams should be prepared for changes, even if they’ve been promised something as part of the new school planning process.

“The reality is that if you think you’re going to be opening a school, you may be opening a school, but just somewhere else,” Fariña said.

Fariña said her chief of staff, Ursulina Ramirez, is in charge of reviewing the plans and she hoped to “have some answers” at February’s meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 12 in Staten Island.

Most of Wednesday night’s mood was light. Fresh faces on the panel, mayoral appointees announced just minutes before the meeting convened, received cheers and applause from the small audience who turned out.

The greeting offered a stark contrast to the adversarial reception that Mayor Bloomberg’s appointees used to receive as they signed off on controversial policies including school closures and co-locations, despite fierce public opposition. The scenes at the monthly meetings played out inside school auditoriums around the city — clashing protests, emotional testimonies, and deafening roars — became a symbol of the controversial way in which the Bloomberg administration enacted education policy.

“I know a lot of parents feel this panel hasn’t always been on our side,” de Blasio said in a statement announcing the new members. “Today we change that.”

In a change, Fariña was one of only a small number of department staff members to be seated on stage alongside panel members. Deputy chancellors and other staff, who in past meetings would also be seated at the table, sat in the auditorium’s front rows.

“It’s a new day,” Elzora Cleveland, a former Community Education Council president in District 2, said after the meeting.

To start, the members, at Fariña’s request, briefly shared what made them passionate about education. Several said they were there to represent the city’s highest-need students: students with disabilities, immigrant students, and low-income students.

“As a mother of a very colorful and courageous 12-year old-with cerebral palsy, we have a lot of work to do,” said Lori Podvesker, a longtime special education advocate whose son attends a school for special needs students. She noted that events could have turned out differently for Avonte Oquendo — the non-verbal boy with autism whose remains were found last week after he went missing from school in October — if he’d had access to special services and resources to help him communicate.

While some things were different about the panel meeting, it resembled past meetings in other ways. The agenda didn’t include any controversial items, an intentional omission. But more than two dozen people signed up to speak anyway, sharing a variety of concerns that have been aired before, about student data privacy, the city’s new kindergarten admissions policy, planned co-locations, and bullying administrators. One teacher, a recently retired union chapter leader, asked the panel to remove her former school’s principal.

Upset parents exceeded their allotted two-minute speaking time and some were eventually cut off. They raised their voices at the panel, carried signs, and demanded solutions to the problems that brought them to the meeting.

Fariña frequently interjected to offer speakers her support. After Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader from the Upper West Side, raised issues with charter school co-locations, Farina said, “at least half of what you said is something we’re considering and thinking about, so stay tuned.”

East New York’s Shamona Kirkland, a charter school parent, said she wanted to partner with Fariña to help improve the school system. “We’re just asking that you don’t forget us,” she said.

“I need all the help I can get,” Fariña said.

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