Ratner $$ can’t buy love

The Brooklyn Paper
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Smartmom forgot that parents were supposed to dress up 1960s-style for the PS 321 Auction and Dance Friday night at the Brooklyn Museum.

Smartmom, looking decidedly un-’60s in black Aerosole sandals and a silk jacket, was more concerned about the article Dumb Editor asked her to write about the controversy surrounding Forest City Ratner’s cash donation of $7,500, his “underwriting” of the event.

For this low, low price, he got a big, big mention in the auction program. For some parents, just seeing “Forest City Ratner” on the program killed the party mood. A few even refused to participate.

The school, which opened in 1966 (hence the ’60s theme), raises around $50,000 at this annual event, which was held in the museum’s gorgeous Beaux Arts Court decorated with bright neon flowers.

Moms drinking cranberry Margaritas were dressed in long floral dresses and peasant blouses. One mom looked very Carnaby Street in knee-high red boots and a psychedelic shirt. Another one channeled Cher in false eyelashes and black bell-bottoms. There were even some dads done up in Hippie style.

“How do you like our private school-style auction?” Smartmom whispered to Hepcat as they waited in line for coffee and miniature “flower power” cup cakes. Berkeley Carroll, a Park Slope private school, also holds its annual auction at the Brooklyn Museum. Talk about keeping up with the Joneses. As the neighborhood becomes more upscale, so does PS 321 and so does the auction.

After securing a Bangkok Bliss at the cash bar, Smartmom asked one friend, a member of the PTA, if she was offended by the developer’s contribution.

“Absolutely not. We take the money. We don’t care where it comes from,” said PTA Mom. “We don’t discriminate when it comes to contributions. Why should we refuse his money?”

Smartmom knew she was exaggerating. Of course the school discriminates. Would it take money from a tobacco company or the American Nazi party (not that Ratner is in that category, but still…). PTA Mom said that most of the PS 321 parents are opposed to the Atlantic Yards development. But she saw no connection between the donation and the project.

“Ratner has been donating to the auction for five years — even before Atlantic Yards was announced.”

In the days leading up to the auction, PTA co-president Amy Bender, whose husband, Bruce, is a top Forest City Ratner exec, took heat for the developer’s contribution. An “expose” in the Daily News didn’t help.

“I think she’s very strong,” said PTA Mom. “She works hard for the school and doesn’t deserve to be demonized just because her husband works for Bruce Ratner.”

PTA Mom was even backed up by Cool Architect Mom, who is actually a member of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn: “I don’t think it should be personal. But I do think we should not have given them such a big mention in the program. It makes it look like PS 321 is supporting the Atlantic Yards project.”

Prior to the auction, Cool Architect Mom discussed her objections with members of the PTA.

“He got away awfully cheap,” Cool Architect Mom pointed out. “For $7,500, he gets his name big on the program and creates the perception that PS 321 supports the project. And we don’t. It goes against everything the school stands for.”

And that is? “Community,” she said without missing a beat. “This school is about community, inclusion and human scale — the opposite of Ratner’s project.”

Then Smartmom spotted Bender, a friendly and dedicated organizer who devotes herself full-time to her non-paying PTA job. PS 321 is blessed to have her and many others, who donate their talent and energy to the PTA. A science lab, music, art, chess, dance, an annual poetry magazine, and a mediation program are just some of the perks made possible by the PTA.

But the PTA is not the only reason the school is considered one of the city’s top public schools. It helps that PS 321 has a passionate, whip-smart principal, great students, fantastic teachers and a very involved parent body.

And they’re not all white and affluent, despite the stereotypes you read in other newspapers. Twenty-one percent of the kids receive school lunch (while the other 79% bring their own tempeh sandwiches and gluten-free Oreos).

The school does reflect (well, sort of) the ethnic diversity of Brooklyn, with a student body that’s 61 percent white, 19 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.

The principal, Elizabeth Phillips, is big on free events that build community, like the International Dinner, Family Dance Night, Turn Off Your TV Night, and the Spring Potluck, where hundreds of parents gather in the school’s backyard for a festive meal.

Smartmom surveyed the festive crowd of familiar faces in their 1960s regalia. Missing were the parents who couldn’t afford to pay $45 for the privilege of dining on Citrus Chicken, and watching other affluent parents bid on a Ratner-donated Nets basketball package for eight people (which, by the way, went for more than $2,000).

The Christie’s auctioneer (a colleague of PS 321 parents) also sold off donated weekends at people’s country houses, a vacation to the Dominican Republic, a health club membership, a child’s fantasy birthday party at Keyspan Park (does that mean we support the Cyclones?) and an Italian cooking lesson and dinner with the famed Lidia Bastianich — all for top dollar.

Money for the school is a win-win for the kids, so it’s no wonder that PS 321 is so overcrowded (more than 1,200 kids in a school built for 900).

Sometimes Smartmom feels guilty that her kids go to such a great public school. What about the families in poor neighborhoods that aren’t so lucky? Isn’t there some way to spread the wealth? Don’t all kids deserve the same quality of education as the kids of Park Slope? Don’t all kids merit donations from Bruce Ratner?

Of course they do, but there’s a Catch-22 at work: After all, the success of PS 321 has done wonders for Park Slope’s real-estate values, which, in turn, drives more money to the school.

To quell the guilt and sense of entitlement, Smartmom returned to the cash bar for a plastic cup of Chardonnay and wondered if Bruce Ratner donates $7,500 to all the schools in the neighborhood.

Well … not quite.

Smartmom emailed Ratner spokesperson, Joe DePlasco, who wrote back, “Forest City Ratner also supports a wide range of educational and recreational programs throughout Brooklyn and the city.”

When Smartmom pressed him for the name of a specific school or recreation program they support, he responded: “Sorry, that’s all we have to say on the issue.”

Hmmmm. He couldn’t give just one name? That may work on Dumb Editor, but does DePlasco think Smartmom was born yesterday?

Whether Ratner is an influence peddler or just boss of the PTA co-prez’s husband, he chooses to put his money on Seventh Avenue and First Street. So, back to Dumb Editor’s original question: do those dollars buy the opinions of this politically savvy PS 321 crowd?

Not a chance.

“I think it’s insulting that anyone thinks our opinions can be bought,” said Mommy Group Friend. “Just because the PTA takes Ratner’s money doesn’t mean we endorse his project.”

Clearly, the parents are too smart for that. They want their cake (school enrichments), their progressive politics (human-scale architecture, please), and their middle-class guilt (oy, life is so unfair) and be able to eat it, too.

Another glass of Chardonnay, anyone?

Louise Crawford, a Park Slope mom, also operates “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.”
Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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