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Parents Kept From Paying N.Y. Schoolteacher's Salary

Education: Private effort to retain beloved Manhattan educator is vetoed as being unfair to less affluent areas.

September 24, 1997|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The money came from varied sources, all of it from the heart--checking accounts, wallets, piggy banks--as parents and pupils in Manhattan's affluent Greenwich Village scrambled to raise the $46,000 salary of a beloved fourth-grade public schoolteacher about to be cut from the staff.

The money was collected in only four days. But in a case that could resonate in other inner-city school systems, New York City's Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew on Monday vetoed the idea on the grounds it was unfair to other schools with less affluent parents.

On Tuesday, a judge postponed the dismantling of Lauren Zangara's class at least until Thursday, allowing time for parents and Crew to confer.

"It's a tremendously emotional issue," said Gary Griffin, professor of education at Teachers College in Manhattan. "How can it be appropriate that the kids in a certain school have better benefits from the system, even though it comes from the parents' pockets?"

Griffin paused for a moment, contemplating what he would do if he had a child in Zangara's class.

"I would probably do the same thing. I would probably be among the first five people in line to give money," he said.

In New York, in a pattern followed in many other large cities, parents and parent associations have helped pay for supplies, some extracurricular activities and for part-time instructors who teach music, science and art.

In California, where the salaries of teachers are paid from district budgets, there have been attempts to raise money through foundations and parent groups for special programs, such as music and computer literacy. But officials of teacher groups said they hadn't heard of a situation similar to PS 41 in Manhattan where parents decided to entirely subsidize a public schoolteacher.

Last week, parents at the school were told the local school district would be forced to cut one of its fourth-grade teachers and redistribute her students because of a budget shortfall in the district. Zangara would be transferred to a more crowded school.

Parents quickly rallied behind Zangara, some standing outside the school collecting checks.

The local school district at first seemed supportive, but when virtually all the money was raised, Crew blocked the move.

In a written statement Monday, the chancellor said that the Board of Education needs to adopt a policy ensuring "this practice does not adversely affect the opportunity for equity in the teaching of the core curriculum throughout the New York City public schools."

His decision quickly became an issue in the mayoral race.

Democratic nominee Ruth W. Messinger, who has made school reform the centerpiece of her campaign against Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, sided with the parents.

"They raised money precisely according to the guidelines allowed a parent association," she charged. " . . . The chancellor has now changed the regulations on them after the fact."

Giuliani backed Crew.

"The chancellor has concerns about the implications this would have for the entire system," the mayor said Tuesday, "so I think he's done the right thing, take time to see what the rules should be, how they would affect all the different schools.

"I think he needs time to develop a consistent approach to this."

The dispute highlights a long-term fractious issue in school finance--the inequities inherent in funding schools through local property taxes.

"School finance reform is often not very popular in legislatures for the simple reason that influential people in middle- and upper-income communities do not have a strong incentive to support formulas that wind up redistributing wealth," said Jay Heubert, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a specialist in educational legal issues.

" . . . What happens is parents in schools that are wealthier, within less wealthy districts, try to make up the difference by contributing money as private citizens to schools," Heubert continued. "In a way it seems reasonable for the parents to want to pay for a teacher who is doing a wonderful job.

"But if you allow [them] to make up those differences out of their own pockets, you eliminate incentive for funding resource reform for all children," he added.

Such debates do not score points with Sandra Guzman, whose son R.J. burst into tears when it appeared that Zangara would be gone and her 26 students shifted to other teachers and larger classes.

"In New York, for more than a decade, the PTA, at least in this school, has raised money to fund music programs, and to get a coach for the track team. This so-called blur [between public and private schooling] has been going on for quite a while," she said.

" . . . In the philosophical debate, the kids are losing out, at least in this class and this school," Guzman charged. "While the adults are debating, there is a huge destruction in the children's education."

Times staff writer Eleanor Randolph and special correspondent Lisa Meyer contributed to this story.

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