Our Town downtown
September 25, 2006
You’ve seen those C-SPAN panels or book readings where the camera pulls back from the participants and you notice the audience seats in the room are so sparsely filled you’re uncomfortable for the whole enterprise. You wonder why some somebody didn’t call a professor they knew and ask him to bring his class down to fill the seats.
That’s about how it was at the Tweed Court House on Chambers Street a week ago Monday for the first public meeting of the Panel for Education Policy. (Think school board). There were name-place cards in front of each of the dozen panel members’ seats at the big table and one for Chancellor Joel Klein, water bottles, microphones, all that. They had a guy announce in Spanish that there were translation services available. You could even have had sign language going on if you had called in advance. There was a PowerPoint-ready screen behind the big table. It was set up like there was going to be a real meeting.
I counted just 25 people in the audience, that’s including me and a few people with media chains around their neck. So maybe 20 people out of a school system of over a million kids and almost two million parents were in those seats.
Here’s what they saw:
A meeting so uninspired and so perfunctory you wondered how they were getting away with it. You wondered if the mayor walked in and saw the proceedings if he wouldn’t have thrown the whole panel out. But then you wondered if maybe the mayor knew very well how these meetings go and he was alright with that. Then you got cynical. And then you thought people should send their kids to private school. I don’t mean those pockets of parents with all sorts of degrees who send their kids to the good public school programs. Those kids are going to do all right no matter where they go to school because there are books and shiny computers all over their house. I mean the parents of kids from other households who of course can’t afford private schools and whose kids don’t get into the good programs at their school and have to rely on the people in front of them at the big table to give their kids something of quality.
They couldn’t have seen much quality in the proceedings that night. (One woman on the panel, the glaring exception. She was the lone exception in the other panel meeting I attended over the summer which was also lame, but I blamed that lameness on it being summer. I’m trying to get in touch with her to see what she thinks of it all.)
I mentioned here, after the first meeting I attended, that Chancellor Klein tinkered incessantly with his Blackberry virtually the whole time. It seemed crazy to me that he wasn’t more sensitive to what even the few people in the audience, some with press credentials, might think about such a distracted way of spending his time in the center seat at the table.
Well, he did it again last Monday. There he was chairing the opening meeting of the new school year and there he was again scrolling around on his little machine and thumbing messages while points were being made on the screen over his head. I’m as old as he is and I know the world is not lived out like a feel-good TV show, but even I was shocked at his insouciance.
Does his indifference at the only two meetings I’ve seen him at mean he’s that way in the day-to-day running of the school system? No. But it does show a lack of regard for the public, which is a criticism that’s been lobbed the administration’s way about how they run the schools.
Something needs to be changed. Something needs to happen to make more than 25 people in this huge city come to meetings about the schools. One thing: Joel Klein could put away his Blackberry and not look at his watch like he had better things to do.
-- Bill Gunlocke