Walcott spars with parents and strikers during meeting on Staten Island
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott was a lightning rod Wednesday night for parents unhappy about the school bus strike, as well as what they perceive to be inadequate services for special-education students.
The meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy drew more than 150 Staten Islanders to the Petrides Educational Complex in Sunnyside, among them angry school bus drivers and matrons who belong to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181.
City Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore) criticized the city for letting $250 million in state education aid slip away through a wrangle over teacher evaluation criteria. Coupled with its handling of the bus strike, she delivered a succinct verdict on the Department of Education: “Abysmal.”
“I don’t know if your realize you have put vulnerable students with disabilities in my district in danger,” Ms. Rose told Walcott and the panel, “because they are not being transported by trained drivers and matrons. … Parents are not only inconvenienced but now have to worry about the safety of their children,” she said to a standing ovation.
“I am very clear on our position,” countered Walcott, “and our position is to do something we have not done in 33 years” — put the bus contracts out to bid in hopes of saving $1.1 billion.
“Also, the way to save money is for the union that is on strike to have their workers go back to work,” Walcott said. “This is between the bus companies and the union.”
Audience members shot back: “No it’s not!” and “No way!”
“You have a responsibility to the 1.1 million children in New York City to sit down with unions and work through this issue,” Community Education Council 31 President Sam Pirozzolo told Walcott, with whom he shared the stage.
Some speakers expressed chagrin that substitutes for the drivers and matrons are being certified on the basis of four-hour first aid/CPR classes.
Mothers asked for better-trained personnel and more comprehensive programs for autistic children and those with other disabilities that would permit them to advance to college or join the workforce.
“Give our children the services they need and deserve,” said Andrea Lella, CEO and director of Families Helping Families, which advocates for special-needs families.
The transition from the primary grades to often-crowded middle schools seemed to be a thorny issue. Through tears, Faye Dilgen of Tottenville begged Walcott to help her 10-year-old, John Hudson Dilgen, to attend Totten Intermediate School with his friends come fall.
“He can’t walk because of his wounds” from a rare disease, she told the chancellor.
Some speakers called for trained NYPD officers or soldiers to augment security measures at schools. It’s no longer “the occasional drunk entering a school” that poses danger, said Kathy Perez. “It’s the psychotic with a mission to create a massacre in our schools or a terrorist. We are not prepared.”