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State education forums spark controversy on LI

New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B.

New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King, Jr. speaks to the press outside Oyster Bay High School. (Oct.15, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

Controversy is swirling over advance selection of speakers and admittance restrictions to education forums this week on Long Island featuring state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., with some angry parents saying they will demonstrate outside high schools where meetings are to be held.

The forums, Tuesday at Ward Melville High School in East Setauket and Wednesday at Mineola High School, are among about a dozen statewide that King and other state officials had described as opportunities to air concerns over revved-up student testing, the rigorous Common Core academic standards, teacher job evaluations and protection of student data.

Two more forums are slated to be held on Long Island, on Nov. 26 and Dec. 9, though complete details on locations and times have not been announced.

At Tuesday's forum, coordinated by state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), five pre-selected people from each of 12 Suffolk County school districts will be seated in a reserved section of the Ward Melville auditorium, which can accommodate about 900, according to Three Village school superintendent Cheryl Pedisch. Three people from each district will be allowed two minutes each to speak.

Otherwise, seating will be on a first-come basis, Pedisch said. The forum, from 6 to 8 p.m., also will be live-streamed on video in the school's cafeteria, which can hold about 420 people.

The situation Wednesday at Mineola High School is being managed differently, with state Sen. Jack Martins' office giving out tickets to 15 Nassau County school districts. That forum is from 4 to 6:30 p.m.

Martins (R-Mineola), who announced last week that he will act as moderator, said the tickets were distributed to ensure that local parents, students and educators will be well-represented. He cited limited space in the auditorium, which has about 750 seats, as another reason for using tickets.

Anyone interested in the event will be able to view it live on a computer, Martins said.

An Education Department spokesman, Tom Dunn, said King and other officials, including Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, were holding the meetings at lawmakers' invitation. He declined to comment on the use of tickets.

"These are not open forums," said North Bellmore parent Jeanette Deutermann, adding that she believes state officials set tighter restrictions on Island forums than those elsewhere. "We all have a right to be heard."

Deutermann, who is active in a statewide movement to have students refuse to take state tests, said she and other test opponents will hold meetings outside Ward Melville and Mineola high schools as protests against what they view as controls on unfettered debate.

Tisch, in a phone interview, said she wants the public to know that the state's academic requirements must be upgraded to prepare students for college and 21st century careers. "Where we are now is simply not good enough for New York State to remain competitive," she said.

The chancellor cited results of national testing released last week that showed New York in the middle of the pack among states in reading and math scores for fourth and eighth grades.

Flanagan and Martins said they expect lively discussion.

"I don't think anybody is going to be shy about standing up and talking," said Flanagan, who chairs the Senate Standing Committee on Education and recently conducted a series of hearings statewide on education reform.

Martins, a member of the Senate Education Committee who has criticized the Common Core rollout, called the Mineola meeting "a positive step in allowing the voices of our school communities to be heard in a way that will hopefully be a precursor to the change we all agree we need."

"I expect that Commissioner King will be responding to dozens of tough questions during the course of the forum," he said in a prepared statement.

Word about the forums' rules began circulating late last week and spread rapidly on Internet chat sites, prompting complaints to local school officials.

The reaction underscored the volatile atmosphere surrounding testing, the Common Core and other issues. Last month, King canceled state PTA-sponsored appearances at four town-hall meetings -- one in Garden City -- when the first two meetings, held upstate and attended by hundreds, grew confrontational.

In canceling the other events, the Education Department said the earlier meetings had been hijacked by "special interests." At the time, a department spokesman declined to identify those special interests.

The commissioner then announced the revamped round of a dozen forums. The commissioner said the sessions would allow "a respectful, direct and constructive dialogue with parents," and aides said meetings would be open to the public.

Some Nassau school administrators scrambled to meet demand for tickets to Wednesday's forum.

Patrick Manley, superintendent of Franklin Square schools, said his district received 50 tickets to distribute on Wednesday, and quickly conferred with school board members and others to devise a fair allotment.

"I think we handled this in a fair way, and I think everyone who wanted a ticket got one," Manley said.Victoria Hart, a Franklin Square parent, had messaged Newsday on Friday, saying she considered the use of tickets a "sham" and had not gotten one herself. Hart eventually got a ticket, Manley said.

Hart did not return calls to her home.

Three forums in this series already were held in Albany, Port Chester and Rochester.

Hundreds of people packed a Port Chester middle school auditorium on Oct. 29. About 70 audience members spoke, with many blasting the Education Department's introduction in the spring of tougher new tests in grades 3-8, according to a report in The Journal News newspaper.

Parents, teachers and school administrators said they were upset those tests were given before the department had released most of its promised guides covering the new curriculum.

On the Island, school administrators said they welcome the chance to be heard. They said many students' academic achievements are masked by lower scores elsewhere in the state, and the Island's schools are unnecessarily burdened by the state's new educational mandates.

"I want them to recognize that Long Island, as a region, has high expectations for its students and has had them for a long time," said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country schools and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

Gerold said she will attend the Ward Melville forum along with a district contingent of more than 50 parents and teachers.

On Friday, the superintendents association, which represents the county's 68 public school districts, sent a detailed letter to King, urging an end to over-testing and faster provision of test results to districts, among other suggestions.

The chief operating officer of Western Suffolk BOCES, Michael Mensch, earlier last week sent the commissioner a similar letter. The BOCES letter was supported by all 18 school superintendents within the district.

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