The once-genteel race to succeed Councilman Bill DeBlasio was thrown into turmoil this week, when the pregnant wife of one of the candidates sent an e-mail from her hospital bed to slam another candidate for making an issue out of the couple’s decision to send their son to private school.
Kelly Skaller, the wife of candidate Josh Skaller, sent the e-mail to the Skaller campaign’s list of supporters and member of the media last Saturday, charging that rival candidate Brad Lander had “attacked” the Skallers’ decision to send their 8-year-old son, Wolf, to the elite Berkeley Carroll School rather than to public school, where Lander’s two children are educated.
“Josh and I struggled to find the school that was most appropriate for our son and his special needs,” wrote Kelly Skaller, a public school teacher. Though she did not reveal the nature of Wolf’s special need, she said that he “struggles with reading.”
“Unfortunately, one of my husband’s opponents, Brad Lander, has decided to make our schooling choice an issue in this campaign. As a mother, I have had enough of the lies and misinformation [by Lander], who is playing the same old politics as usual. We won’t make our opponents’ children an issue in this campaign, because children should not be political pawns.”
Lander denied that he had made any attack in his campaign to represent the 39th District, which sprawls from Borough Park to Cobble Hill.
“I have pointed out that I am the only public-school parent in the Democratic primary, but I have never questioned or attacked any of the other candidates for their choices, and never said a word about anyone’s family,” Lander told The Brooklyn Paper. “It is simply false.”
Lander has never been directly quoted talking about the Skaller family’s private school decision. Indeed, when The Brooklyn Paper asked the candidat es in July specifically about this very question, Lander answered: “I am a proud public school parent, with two kids at PS 107 in Park Slope, where my wife has served on the school leadership team. … Our schools need real champions in public office — people who have shown that they’ll fight for what our kids need: A high-quality, neighborhood elementary school, more teaching and less testing, genuine parent involvement, real support for teachers, greener, healthier schools.”
In his answer, Skaller himself raised the issue of his son: “The selection of our child’s school was a serious, difficult and personal issue, and we chose to send our son, Wolf, to a neighborhood private school based on his unique needs. … I support giving our public schools the resources they need to succeed, and I support the individual choices that parents all over Brooklyn make when raising their children.”
But since then, the public school issue has become more heated, with Lander distributing a flier over the weekend touting his public school credentials and listing dozens of public school parents who support his candidacy.
In a debate held Monday by The Brooklyn Paper, the issue came up again, with Skaller, saying he is “sick and tired” of talking about his son not going to public school.
“Every single candidate should have right to conduct his family in the way he sees fit,” said Skaller, whose wife gave birth to a daughter, Selah, on Sunday after a difficult delivery.
Lander said he agreed, but added that being the parent of a public school child “is a relevant qualification,” for a city councilmember. He also denied the allegation that he or his campaign workers talked about Wolf Skaller’s schooling.
“We’ve never spoken about anyone’s family,” Lander said.
But Skaller said voters have told him otherwise.
“I’ve knocked on too many doors and heard from too many community members to agree with Brad,” he said.
Later, Skaller’s campaign directed reporters to a New York Observer blog where a commenter claiming to be a Park Slope resident said that Lander had mentioned that Skaller’s son goes to an elite private school.
The validity of that comment could not be verified, and it is not clear what Lander actually said.
In Monday’s debate, Skaller did express a desire to move beyond the issue of where his child goes to school, expressing hope that the “real issues” of education could be discussed. But in a district with so many politically active parents who send their children to public school, where a candidate sends his school-age children is a real sway factor for some voters.
“I really like Josh and Brad, but all things being equal, why wouldn’t I vote for the guy with a kid in my kid’s school?” said one PS 107 mother. “As a parent, he’s going through everything that I’m going through — the testing anxiety, the middle school crap, the bad teachers who don’t get fired, the good teachers who aren’t rewarded enough, everything. He’ll see stuff that other candidates won’t see on a fact-finding tour.”
Kelly Skaller disagreed.
“Josh and I are invested in the public schools,” she wrote in her e-mail. “Both of Josh’s parents went to public schools in New York City. My father attended public schools here as well. My grandmother was a public school teacher in New York City for over 20 years. I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school. I have a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.”
She also offered a laundry list of public schools at which she has taught.
“My husband and I share a core value: Every child deserves a high-quality education. As a City Councilmember and the father of a child with special needs, Josh will fight to make sure that schools remain true to the developmental needs of their students and provide support to teachers and administrators so that they can teach in ways that connect to every student.”
Other candidates in the race are John Heyer, Bob Zuckerman and Gary Reilly. None has a child, though Heyer’s wife is pregnant.
In addition to the exchange about public school education, there was lots of action and high-minded policy positions in Monday’s debate. Here are some of the highlights:
• The idea of a car-free Prospect Park is controversial in this district because many residents in Windsor Terrace and Kensington think drivers will wind their way through their neighborhoods if they’re forced out of the park.
Reilly said with “an unequivocal yes” that he supports banning vehicles in the park, Zuckerman agreed that “that’s the goal,” and Heyer proposed a trial period of no cars to see if Windsor Terrace and Kensington experience an increase in congestion.
Lander and Skaller, who have been at each other’s throats, found common ground saying that they do not favor banning all traffic in Prospect Park while there is such strong opposition in Windsor Terrace and Kensington.
• Gay marriage resurfaced due to the unorthodox — and, some contend, conservative — position of Heyer. Instead of granting gay marriage, he favors granting “legal unions” to all couples, straight or gay, to ensure equal rights to all couples. Marriage, Heyer said, should be private ceremonies to sanctify a legal union if people want.
The four other candidates all favor permitting same-sex couples to simply marry.
• If Bruce Ratner abandons his Atlantic Yards project, Heyer said he “would be disappointed if the Nets don’t come” to Brooklyn, though unlike his rivals, he predicted that “Forest City Ratner will be able to do what it wants to do.”
The other candidates treated Atlantic Yards like the third rail of politics, refusing to show any support for it, let alone any belief that it might come to fruition. Zuckerman proposed relocating the basketball arena to Coney Island and Skaller said he would not be disappointed if the Nets didn’t move to the borough.
Reilly said he wouldn’t give Ratner another cent in subsidies and said the city “could take back what it gave him in the first place.”
Lander, however, found himself on the defensive because he claimed to have always opposed Ratner’s project. Yet Zuckerman unearthed statements he made to the New York Observer in 2007 when Lander said, “I consider myself in a very highly ambivalent position. … I believe that the project could’ve been, and maybe still could be, modified to a place where I could support it, yet still be recognizable.”
When pressed by relentless moderator Gersh Kuntzman, Lander maintained the same attitude, saying that if the plan was revised with an actual public review, traffic studies and reduced taxpayer subsidies for it, he could support it.
The debate will air on the BCAT TV Network on Tuesday, Aug. 18 and can be watched after that on www.boropolitics.com and bricartsmedia.org/BITspecials. The Democratic primary election is Tuesday, Sept. 15.