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Unless they are nonprofits, groups looking to use the city’s public schools have been told to back off by the city Department of Education, community leaders in Queens said this week.
Bob Friedrich, the Presidents Co-op and Condo Council co-president and Glen Oaks Village president, said he received a letter from the DOE about a co-op meeting he was scheduling at a local school in the middle of November.
In the letter, Friedrich said the DOE told him he could not use public schools to hold meetings unless his group changes its status to nonprofit or confers with the DOE as to why they were meeting and whether or not it served a public purpose.
The co-op president said he hoped city legislation could overturn the policy as he had never before been barred from holding meetings in public schools.
“The fact that the DOE has not defined what is or isn’t a public purpose and will leave that decision to a cabal of DOE lawyer-crats out of the public eye is troubling,” Friedrich said. “The school chancellor and Bloomberg administration have heretofore successfully kept this ruling under the radar, which says a lot about the lack of transparency in the rule-making process.”
But according to a DOE spokesman, there has not been a change to the department’s regulation of schools’ extended usage. Instead, he said the DOE was reiterating existing policies in the letters sent to group leaders such as Friedrich.
“Permits are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and may be granted for civic forums and community centers,” the DOE spokesman said. “We are reviewing our communications to ensure they reflect the intent of this regulation.”
In an attempt to amend the rule, City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens) called on city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to consider the leaders of community-based organizations.
“Co-ops, condos, tenant groups and civic associations hold meetings that consistently focus on community issues,” Weprin said. “They should be permitted to meet in public schools without requesting special permission.”
Warren Schreiber, co-president of the Presidents Co-op and Condo Council and president of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, said the rule caught him by surprise and fails to consider the importance of community-based organizations on the local level.
“Not everything can be nonprofit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not community-based,” Schreiber said. “This is going to create a lot of difficulties. In many instances, the school is the only place large enough for these groups to meet at the right cost.”
Schreiber speculated that the enforcement might come as a byproduct of another heavily debated DOE ruling that blocks religious institutions from holding worship services in public school buildings after school. City lawyers appealed the ruling last week, asking a federal appeals panel to undo the policy.
Puzzled by the decision, Schreiber and Friedrich noted that the DOE was in return forfeiting money that groups would pay to host meetings at public schools.
In theory, Friedrich said his group would pay public schools for the cost of keeping the building open. And while his tax dollars continue to fund the schools in Glen Oaks he once had access to for meetings, the co-op president said he was told to look elsewhere.
“Nobody is looking for a freebie, but the DOE closed the doors and put out the non-welcome mat for community-based organizations,” Friedrich said. “The DOE does not own the schools. The taxpayers and groups trying to maintain the excellent quality of life pay for these schools and now they are being denied usage of them. It’s an outrage.”
Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4573.
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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