Education advocates hosted a town hall with Councilman and Democratic nominee for borough president Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) last Thursday evening.
The forum, hosted by several different groups like Queens Parents United and PLACE NYC that are organized respectively around resistance to diversity plans and the elimination of the SHSAT, seemed like it might be hostile territory for the candidate. Richards staked out a hardline progressive education platform during the primary, which differed from the groups’ views in both areas.
But the 90-minute forum largely avoided conflict. The moderator, Horace Davis, president of the Caribbean American Society of New York, was quick to point out common ground between the education advocates and Richards, and the councilman took a softer approach to several areas that he had been more hardline on earlier in his campaign.
During his Q&A with the moderator, Richards said that it was too early to commit to concrete education spending figures. He pointed out that much of the borough president’s influence over education comes through control over the borough’s capital budget allotment, which usually means $80-90 million per year in Queens.
“A lot of what we’re going to pride ourselves on is really getting around the borough and hearing the concerns and using our checkbook to fill the gaps where we can,” Richards said.
He also committed to expanding the number of school seats in the borough, updating schools with the latest technology and increasing gifted and talented programs. His only condition on his capital funding ideas was that he would make sure they were geared toward underserved parts of the borough.
“We’re going to be looking at pockets of the borough that have historically been disinvested in; who have not seen the resources going in, and there’s definitely going to be an equity formula as we look at the budget,” said Richards.
The conversation eventually touched on several other contentious educational issues as well. The advocates asked about where Richards stood on the elimination of screened high school admissions based on testing, not limited to the SHSAT, and desegregation plans.
Though Richards said during a borough candidate forum shortly before the June primary that he was in favor of abolishing screened admissions, during the town hall he suggested looking at a myriad of criteria outside of testing to include in the admissions process like extracurriculars, grades and community service.
“I think the criteria has to be expanded. I don’t believe in the test being the sole determinant,” Richards said.
The councilman also expressed his support for expanding the number of gifted and talented programs, a form of educational programming that uses a test for admission in its current iteration.
Asked for his thoughts on diversity plans, Richards expressed his support of the process, which has stirred up opposition to the impending plan in District 28 stretching from Forest Hills to Jamaica.
“We know that integrated schools are great for everyone. In integrated schools everybody gets access to the same things,” he said, adding that school integration is an immensely complicated process that needs “true community planning” to be successful.