Councilmember Vickie Paladino (R-Whitestone) captured Council- and citywide attention last week as she condemned Drag Queen Story Hour, a nonprofit organization that hosts reading events designed to celebrate gender diversity, both in a comment to the New York Post and on Twitter, referring to the program as “unacceptable and grotesque,” “degeneracy” and equated it to “child grooming,” threatening to pull funding from schools in her district that participate in the program. Despite outcry from a number of her peers on the City Council, Speaker Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica), Borough President Donovan Richards and Mayor Adams, as well as calls for her censure and removal from committee assignments, Paladino has stood by her comments.
In a nearly two-page statement released last Friday afternoon, Paladino expressed her distaste for the reaction her comments have received and suggested that the Council has bigger issues to deal with. “It was blown way out of proportion, not by us, obviously,” Paladino’s chief of staff, Nicole Kiprilov, told the Chronicle. Asked whether the councilmember’s continuous tweets played a role in that, she said, “Not at all.”
Both Kiprilov and Paladino have been adamant that the councilmember has the support of her district in this matter.
“My constituents have been vocal in their concern for the propagation of gender confusion and adult entertainment in public schools,” she wrote in her statement.
But conversations with District 19 parents and education leaders suggest Paladino’s sentiments may not be as universal as she thinks, and that the discussion of whether Drag Queen Story Hour should be able to come to area elementary schools is much more nuanced than she portrays.
Some parents in the area are outright against Paladino’s position on the matter. That includes Kely DeLuca, whose fourth and youngest child attends PS 98 in Douglaston, where she serves as PTA co-president.
“I absolutely support it,” she said, referring to Drag Queen Story Hour. “The fact that [Paladino] many times has said that it’s ‘sexualizing children,’ — I think that there’s a problem with the fact that she thinks drag queens are sexual.”
Though she could understand why some parents might have objections to the program, Alexis Soterakis, whose kids also attend PS 98, shared similar thoughts. “We want to promote tolerance. But we realize that a lot of people would be uncomfortable,” she said. “But I think the outrage shows why we need to do more programs like this, because there’s nothing sexualized about these programs.”
She went on to condemn Paladino’s rhetoric, taking particular issue with the councilmember’s comments about child grooming. “The councilwoman is throwing matches, and it’s just a matter of time before it hits gasoline,” she said.
Kiprilov said that the councilmember used the term “child grooming” to mean “subjecting them to something that doesn’t factor in choice.” Whether that has taken hold with the public is an open question.
Soterakis acknowledged that she “may be more supportive” of the program than some of her fellow District 19 residents. That applies to Yiatin Chu, a Whitestone resident and education advocate.
“The whole idea of introducing gender ideology to young children, I’m also against ... There’s so many nuances and complexities about this. I think they need to have a stronger foundation, and it needs to start in the home,” she said. “We send our children to school to learn subject matter — how to read, how to do math. And gosh, as a system, we’re not doing that well, either. So, let’s get the fundamentals done well before even thinking about anything else.”
Adriana Aviles, whose kids are spread across several area schools and is a member of Community Education Council 26 and of Community Board 11, emphasized that the discussion would need to be a community-wide one; both she and several of the parents interviewed for this article said the program had not been considered in their kids’ schools prior to Paladino’s comments.
“If it was in my school, I’d have to really talk about it with other families,” Aviles said. “I’m not comfortable with it, but if other families want it, then what am I going to say about that?”
When asked, she did, however, say that she would be in favor of other programs that encourage students to consider gender fluidity. But Drag Queen Story Hour is, in her view, not worth the funding.
“I don’t agree with the money being funneled for that, because our kids have fallen far behind as reading instruction and mathematical instruction, and a lot of kids need tutoring and a lot of after school services,” she told the Chronicle.
Parents were on the same page, however, when it came to the councilmember’s threats to pull funding.
“It’s really outrageous,” DeLuca said, “because she’s basically picked something that she doesn’t like and threatened the defunding of schools.”
Soterakis agreed, adding that it sets “a very dangerous precedent.”
Asked for comment, Kiprilov said, “One of the pillars of [Paladino’s] platform as a City Council member is improving the quality of education for students ... Her opposition to Drag Queen Story Hour in schools fits into that platform.”
Whether a councilmember has the authority to take funding from schools, however, is another question.
According to Chu, who, in her time in and around education, has become well-versed in how New York City public schools are funded, councilmembers have discretionary money that can go toward capital projects and specific programs — but little more. “[Paladino] cannot affect specific schools’ funding, because the budget is given by the city and is made up of funding from the state and the city, and also federal money,” Chu said.
But once a school is granted discretionary money, it’s a done deal (though former Bayside High School Principal Michael Athy said School Construction Authority projects sometimes fold). “She could just not give the school what they asked for [the following year],” Chu added.
Still, the possibility of Paladino being censured and removed from committee assignments looms. Per Council rules, censure is one of several forms of sanction the Council could impose, following a report from the Standards and Ethics Committee. Invoking that would require a two-thirds vote from the Council.
Asked for comment on whether the speaker would call for censure, the Chronicle was referred back to Adams’ initial statement, in which she said that the Council was “looking into what further action may be warranted.”
But Paladino, Kiprilov said, is “not worried.” “We’re just going to let it play out the way it plays out.”