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Brooklyn Heights Parents Fear Chancellor's 'Vendetta' in Principal Pick

By Amy Zimmer | June 27, 2017 9:33am
 Kids and parents outside P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights on the first day of school on Sept. 9, 2015.
Kids and parents outside P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights on the first day of school on Sept. 9, 2015.
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DNAinfo/Nikhita Venugopal

BROOKLYN — Parents at Brooklyn Heights’ P.S./M.S. 8 are bracing for a battle over who will be the coveted school’s next principal.

The Department of Education is expected to announce Wednesday afternoon — after the last day of school — its pick to replace Seth Phillips. In his 14 years at the school, P.S. 8 went from being under-enrolled to being overcrowded, with a kindergarten waitlist even after a controversial rezoning shrank its boundaries.

Many parents worry that the candidate they want, Patricia “Trish” Peterson, will not get the job despite also having support of the current principal and teachers. They heard rumors that Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña was stonewalling Peterson in what may seem like an odd twist given the close relationship between the two.

Peterson was featured in New York Post articles in January 2016 accusing Farina of favoritism that paved the way for Peterson's promotions, despite lacking needed credentials.

The DOE said Fariña played no role in any of Peterson’s job applications at the time.

“Any theory that Chancellor Fariña was involved in any of these issues is false,” DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye told the Post last year.

Parents fear that because the schools chief got bad press about having helped boost Peterson’s career within the system, she’s now turned on the educator. Some said the chancellor even cut ties with Peterson after the Post articles came out.

Peterson became P.S. 8’s assistant principal this year, after Phillips brought her in to groom as his successor.  At a PTA meeting on March 30, however, he relayed that there was a “block” on Peterson becoming principal, parents said.

Phillips, they added, believed the Post articles were part of the reason. He told parents that someone above the district’s superintendent did not want to give Peterson the job. He did not disclose further details.

Neither Phillips nor Peterson responded to emails from DNAinfo New York.

Though parents and teachers at the school were a bit wary of Peterson when she first arrived — due to the articles — they grew to respect and appreciate her leadership and have been lobbying the DOE and elected officials on her behalf, collecting roughly 800 signatures to support her.

Peterson accomplished a great deal in one year, parents said, including strengthening the science curriculum through a grant, bringing hands-on projects to bolster the social studies curriculum and supporting the adoption of an anti-bullying curriculum.

“We are aware that there have been articles written in the past that sought to politically scandalize and embarrass the DOE by trying to discredit Ms. Peterson,” the executive board of the P.S. 8 PTA wrote in a May petition. “However, not only has her work at PS8/MS8 been outstanding, but we have confidence that she is a qualified and viable candidate for the position.”

Parents are most perplexed and upset over the situation because under the formal principal selection process — a multi-step process in accordance with the Chancellor’s Regulation C-30 — a committee of parents, teacher’s union reps and members of the principals’ union unanimously recommended Peterson for the job.

Though the C-30 process is usually shrouded in secrecy and discussions are supposed to be confidential, a member of the School Leadership Team announced at a PTA meeting last week that this group — known as the “Level 1 committee” —  recommended Peterson after interviewing the candidates selected by the superintendent.

While the school’s superintendent is then charged with appointing a principal, according to the regulations, “principal appointments in community school districts are subject to rejection for cause by the Senior Deputy Chancellor or his/her designee on behalf of the Chancellor.”

Up until a few years ago, it was extremely rare for the candidate picked by the committee to be rejected unless issues came up during background checks, DOE sources said. But more recently, there have been controversial principal selection processes, and the ratings of candidates remain under wraps.

Some recent high-profile principal selections — where the DOE’s picks were met with outrage and ultimately defeated by the schools’ communities — include East Harlem’s progressive elementary school, Central Park East 1, and Flushing’s elite Townsend Harris High School.

Peterson had successfully gone through the C-30 process in December 2016, which included interviews and DOE investigative vetting, when she was moved from "acting interim" assistant principal of P.S. 8 to earning an official appointment to the role.

“We have an assistant principal that has unanimous support and was picked by the outgoing principal,” said a mom of a soon-to-be third grader, who asked to remain anonymous. “Teachers adore her. Parents adore her. It would seem she’s the clear pick. It just feels wrong that we would be losing out on somebody, who already in her year as [assistant principal] made a significant impact on the school.”

This mom and others were especially incensed that the meeting to announce the new principal was expected to be made on the last day of school, after children had already gone home.

"The most qualified person isn't getting the job because of fear of bad press or a vendetta," worried another mom of two at the school. "It just feels like putting politics ahead of children."

DOE officials emphasized that the C-30 process was still ongoing and that the committee sends notes and recommendations to the superintendent, but does not pick the candidate.

“The superintendent is in the process of appointing a P.S. 8 principal in accordance with Chancellor’s Regulation C-30,” said DOE spokesman Will Mantell. “The process is ongoing, and C-30 confidentiality rules prevent us from disclosing the candidates for any principal position. The superintendent has not yet presented a candidate to the School Leadership Team.”

He added, “We value all feedback and recommendations of the P.S. 8 community, and are engaging them in the C-30 process.”

Correction: An earlier version cited sources claiming Peterson was the chancellor's goddaughter, but DOE officials said that was not true.