Telling tales out of school

The education system in the city - as well as in other cities - consists of three parts: the Jerusalem Education Administration (Manhi), the teachers' association and the parents' association. For a long time, the parents' association has been headed by a very active mother and resident, Eti Binyamin. Binyamin admits that her concern over the students goes far beyond the usual issues common to parents, such as organizing end-of-year events (and their payments). Binyamin has a clear and activist agenda. She wants to receive from the administration - be it the municipality or the Education Ministry - much more consideration for the parents' needs and a strong recognition of the parents' association and its involvement in most of the department's decisions. She was against the Lavie Commission's conclusion (opening all the registration areas); she fought against the government's decision to dispense with the security guards in kindergartens and elementary schools; and she fought fiercely against a few internal oppositions in her organization - all quite successfully. But now, it seems that her tense relationship with the new mayor - which apparently began during the days of the Lavie Commission - is reaching a rather problematic level. By the end of this month (if the date remains unchanged), the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court will have to rule on Barkat's lawsuit against her for libel for remarks she made about his alleged use of schoolchildren to further his own interests. "This is not a normal situation," remarks an employee in the municipality's Education Department. "Some of us at the department find ourselves in the line of fire of this unnecessary war between the mayor and the head of the parents' association." At the moment, the two are awaiting the court's decision to decide how to proceed. And while attempts to settle the matter through mediation haven't succeeded, both sides agree at least on one thing: "If he (or she) withdraws or apologizes, we can close the matter," say close assistants of the two. "I have nothing against Nir Barkat" says Binyamin. "It's true that I was opposed to the Lavie report, with which he was very much identified, but I find it hard to believe that this is the reason behind his decision to take me to court." Evyatar Elad, Barkat's spokesman, says that the mayor had no other choice after Binyamin attacked him publicly and accused him of using schoolchildren to further his own interests. During one of the former city council meetings, Barkat had invited parents and their children to attend a meeting on whose agenda was a school issue advocated by the head of the opposition. Binyamin says she was not opposed to Barkat's action but couldn't accept that "he would drag the kids to the city council hall in order to serve his political interests." To say the least, Barkat didn't like Binyamin's remarks, which she sent him detailed in a letter, and he sued her for libel. "Since then, it's been open war between the two, and it's unbearable," says the Education Department employee. The next conflict came earlier than expected by both sides, when before the start of the school year, Barkat and Binyamin both claimed the credit for reversing the government's decision to cancel the budget for security guards in schools and kindergartens. Meanwhile, the "silent war" between the two continued, causing some real damage on the ground. For example, upon calling the first meeting of the city committee for education, invitations were sent to all members to attend; but Binyamin, the elected head of the parents' association, was not personally invited. "The mayor meets parents and their representatives on a regular basis, as well as principals and teachers, whom he considers his partners to promote the necessary reforms in Jerusalem's education system," adds Elad. "In addition, the mayor is considering, following the creation of a local council for education, a local council of parents from all the city's educational institutions in the city. Regarding the libel suit, we are waiting for the court to rule."