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PS 29 principal gets slush fund

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Parents at scandal-tarred PS 29 have created an $8,000 slush fund for their beloved principal — and it’s all legal.

Fifth-grade parents at the tony Cobble Hill school — where a former PTA treasurer stole more than $80,000 last year — said they wanted to honor 10-year principal Melanie Woods by setting up a special fund that she gets to control.

“We wanted to have a certain recognition built in to show appreciation for her leadership,” said Jane Heaphy, the PTA’s co-president.

Woods took over the Henry Street school in 2001, and parents credit her with keeping class sizes down, recruiting top-notch teachers and launching initiatives like a garden-to-cafe project and a popular collaborative team-teaching program — even as the city slashed $1 million in funding since 2006.

“PS 29 is the heart of our community — and its because of the contributions of Melanie,” said Pietro Costa, who donated to the principal’s fund.

Many schools set up such accounts, which must be used on school improvements or special programs under the oversight of the Department of Education.

And Woods will be closely watched as she spends the money, given that PS 29 was rocked by scandal earlier this year when former PTA Treasurer Providence Hogan was arrested for stealing $82,000 from the parent group.

Hogan used the pilfered cash to pay for fertility treatments and rent at her Atlantic Avenue spa. Last week, she avoided jail time in a plea deal that requires her to pay back the money with interest.

Woods said she isn’t worried about any negative connection to the prior PTA scandal.

“Anything has potential for sparking controversy — but I’m confident that a good decision will be made,” said Woods, who is considering using the fund for teacher workshops and planning lessons run by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

Whatever she chooses to do, PS 29 kids will benefit from the stunning fundraising prowess of parents at the elite public school, which is between Baltic and Kane streets. Last year, even as the Hogan scandal broke, the PTA raised an eye-opening $700,000.

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Reader Feedback

Lisa Trollbäck from Cobble Hill says:

My daughter graduated from PS 29 in June and my son graduated the previous year. It is enormously disappointing to see a parting gift to PS 29 from parents of graduating students inaccurately characterized as "a slush fund." Gifts in honor of individuals are of course commonplace at educational institutions and nonprofits of all kinds. Daniel Bush spoke last week to several parents of children who just graduated from PS 29, and still -- as it evidently sells more (free!) papers -- felt moved to cast our gift in a slanted light rather to celebrate a hardworking school leader's lasting contributions to her Brooklyn community and the thousands of families she has served. I am a former active volunteer, working for two years as a PTA co-president and last year as a co-vice president. I am among the parents who helped establish the Principal's Fund in honor of Melanie Raneri Woods, and I am proud to honor her. The fund is a parting gift to all the children who will be attending PS 29 in 2011-2012. Those who contributed are parents who have felt so moved by, and grateful for, their kids' PS 29 experience and Melanie's leadership that they wanted to make this extra gift to the school -- on top of other money that we have helped raise over the years via so many other fundraisers. The purpose is simply to honor her excellent leadership and to help PS 29 best serve its 650 students, pre-K-grade 5. Donating to the fund was of course entirely voluntary, as any PTA gift is. We raised over $8k, surpassing our target of $5k, and donors hope there will now be a new tradition of 5th grade families choosing to make a parting gift to PS 29. Many 5th grade families contributed in whatever amount they could. (There was no suggested level.) It was wonderful that many families felt able to give, despite the economy and simply for the sake of helping a school that their own children are leaving. 

Over the last five years, the school's budget has been cut over $1M and the PTA has worked extremely hard to attempt to minimize the impact on the children, by raising money for the school. 

Melanie is entering her 10th year at the school and this was just one small gesture towards recognizing that her leadership has led the school to be one of the most sought-after elementary schools in the City. She works tirelessly. When I served as PTA president, many of her emails to me were from between 4:00 and 5:00 AM.  Her most remarkable and lasting achievement is hiring and nurturing a truly extraordinary teaching staff. She has worked hard even through budget cuts to maintain small class sizes. She has been a champion of collaborative team teaching (ICT) classes, which exist on every grade. She is a driving force behind the school's innovative garden-to-cafe initiative, Wellness in the Schools program, and worked magic to get our playground renovated not once but twice (after vandals burned the jungle gym). PS 29 is a model Columbia University Teachers College Reading & Writing Project school that receives visits from educators from around the country. Our children routinely go on to attend the best district and citywide middle schools. 

It is hard to count all of her contributions to the school and its students. When Melanie retires, she leaves behind a school far stronger than the one she found when she became its principal. It is a pity that The Brooklyn Paper and Daniel Bush chose not to write that far more compelling and far more accurate story. 
July 19, 2011, 6:02 am
6th Generation Brooklynite from Cobble Hill says:
What a deplorable article. This reporter must be living under a rock not to grasp that the borough's best neighborhood schools are those with strong principals and strong PTAs. Should parents feel ashamed that they chose to donate to a school their own kids are leaving and to acknowledge the principal at the same time? Is there a downside to this? Should the lesson here be: Don't give back? Shame on The Brooklyn Paper for trying to rake up mud where none exists. The mud is actually on the Paper for publishing such a misleading and skewed story. Congratulations, Ms. Woods, for continuing to offer a great education to our neighborhood's kids.
July 19, 2011, 6:39 am
Nina Chan Jalowayski from Cobble Hill says:
There was no need to write it like that. The reporter had all the makings of a great article. It could have easily been written positively without all the guilty by association, tabloid-ish, scandal-laden prose. There was no need for any of that.

Meanwhile, BRAVO to my fellow Grade 5 parents for the $8k in recognition and appreciation for all that Melanie does, has done and will continue to do for the students at PS 29. That's fantastic news! Thanks, Melanie, as always.
July 19, 2011, 7:52 am
mom from Fort Greene says:
This is a ridiculous article, missing the fundamental nature of PTA fundraising. PTA budgets are meticulously planned in advance, so that when the parents approve the budget, they know where their dollars will be spent. The fact that the parents have such faith in their principal that they would give her a large donation to spend as she wishes is a real tribute to her leadership skills. This article misses the point completely.
July 19, 2011, 8:22 am
Snow in July? Only in The Brookyn Paper from Cobble Hill says:

A slush fund is generally considered to be a fund set aside for corrupt purposes such as bribes or graft. Since when should an honorary donation -- to a local public school by a bunch of parents, to be used for school-specific purposes of the honoree's choice (in this case, the principal's) -- be considered 'a slush fund'? It's too bad that the reporter did not learn the difference; perhaps he went to a school where the principal was not as good as 29's!

P.S.: Could be time to update the paper's pic of PS 29; last we checked, it had not snowed in Brooklyn in July, though most observers would acknowledge some recent extraordinary occurrences at PS 29! If the Paper had in fact cared to update the photo, they could have snapped a pic of the beautiful, newly completed playground Principal Woods is responsible for making happen, despite an economy where school renovations are all but unheard of.   
July 19, 2011, 8:36 am
Gowanusgus from Gowanus says:
This is a horribly written story that stains the Brooklyn Paper.
A slush fund implies something illegal, illegitimate or secret. The PS29 Principal's Fund is:
- a legal, DOE approved fundraising effort, used by hundreds of PTAs at other schools throughout the country.
- supported by the PS 29 community of parents, who donated the funds eagerly and willingly to a beloved principal.
- the fundraising effort was openly promoted and raised at the end of the school year as a thank you gift by 5th grade parents.
So how could this be termed a slush fund in any context? Calling it a slush fund and positioning it as a controversy is grossly inaccurate by any basic standards of journalism. Ironic that the Brooklynpaper.com guidelines forbid posting of "slanderous" material yet the newspaper itself publishes slanderous articles.
July 19, 2011, 9:06 am
wordsmythe from thatsastretchville says:
Slush fund? Weird.
July 19, 2011, 10:09 am
Dan, the tar's on you from Boerum Hill says:
Daniel Bush, What's your point? Are we to believe that all news from PS 29 should be reported as some sort of scandal just because the PTA recently found a bad apple in its midst (unfortunately, can happen anywhere) and called the police? Or because some disturbed kids set its playground on fire? Does that mean that all stories emanating from PS 29, from now on, should automatically be reported from the "scandal-tarred" perspective, even when they are about people doing something good for their community, and simply giving back? Your article is not only slanderous, as Gowanus Gus correctly notes above, but wildly misleading. The strain is perceptible; you tried so valiantly to make this article into scandal, but could find no scandal to report.
Perhaps this is why you write articles for a paper that locals sweep off their doorsteps straight into the recycling bin. Just one more reason for us all to buy bigger brooms!
July 19, 2011, 10:16 am
A. Cohen from Carroll Gardens says:
By calling the fund established in the principal's name a slush fund, Daniel Bush is implying that the fund is somehow illicit or unethical. This is just bad journalism and a gross inaccuracy that smacks of tabloid reporting. Plus, it is a disservice to PTAs that are struggling to maintain educational standards for our children while state and city governments slash funding. The real story is how and why our elected officials are undermining this nation's public education system and therefore it's future -- making it necessary for parents and communities to engage in fundraising at levels never before needed or expected.
July 19, 2011, 1:33 pm
hicksanddegraw from cobble hill says:
This is the Brooklyn Paper being the Brooklyn Paper. It's really too bad, but the more you comment and the more you talk to the reporters, the more they will do this kind of journalism. Better to ignore than engage if you want anything to change.

Also, it's not the reporters who deserve to be vilified, it's the editor Gersh Kuntzman, and his publisher, Rupert Murdoch.
July 19, 2011, 2:55 pm
Josef from downtown bklyn says:
Goodness, the principal has a legion of defenders it seems. It is easy to see how they raised that $700K, given the vehemence with which the reporter is being castigated here.

At the same time, I see their point. Reading the article, I was baffled as to what exactly was worth reporting on here. As Mr. Bush writes, "Many schools set up such accounts, which must be used on school improvements or special programs under the oversight of the Department of Education."

Indeed, I thought that giving successful principals a degree of autonomy in terms of how they spend their budget was a deliberate decision taken by the Bloomberg administration, under which this seems a pedestrian example.

Two points I feel should be mentioned:

1. "hicksanddegraw from cobble hill" is dead right in writing "it's not the reporters who deserve to be vilified, it's the editor Gersh Kuntzman, and his publisher, Rupert Murdoch," though I am not sure that refusal to comment is appropriate. Perhaps taping conversations with these reporters?

2. Several commentators praising the principal say she deserves credit for recruiting and keeping a great teaching staff. I'm sure she does, but as someone who lives near this school, voted there in 2008 and used to walk past it every day, I can definitely see the appeal to working there, and I'm not even a teacher. If I as a teacher had to choose between working on Staten Island or in the Bronx or in Inwood vs coming to work in a gorgeous, tree-lined neighborhood with great shops and restaurants to potentially frequent after work and high-quality subway access, it seems like it would be a no-brainer.
July 21, 2011, 3:30 pm
ryan f from carroll gardens says:
I'm glad principal Melanie Woods is no longer a principal at PS 29.
There was too much favoritism going on at the school and it was getting out of control.
Let's be realistic, when parents create a slush fund for their principal, what do you think they expect in return?

As a parent, I was disgusted to see how the PTA and principal Melanie Woods were tied to the hip. God only knows how much money transferred hands "under the table" for favors.
I wouldn't be surprised if members of the PTA or school parents "donated" money to Melanie so she can pull some strings to get their kids admitted to top middle schools throughout NYC.

The school did a poor job of preparing students for upcoming citywide Math & ELA exams, but somehow, they scored higher than other schools (PS 58, PS 261, and PS 29), red flag.
Personally, I think she let the power get to her head. I don't think she was effective and something must've come up with the NYC Office of Investigation that led to her early retirement.
Hopefully the new principal won't allow the parents or the PTA to control him/her. PS 29, best of luck.
Sept. 9, 2012, 9:26 pm

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