labor pains

Parents and DOE reach tentative deal on parent-paid aides

Parent-paid teaching assistants may be able to keep their jobs for at least another year under a tentative agreement reached today by parents and city officials.

The proposed solution came from schools chancellor Joel Klein, who recommended that teaching assistants who are hired and paid for by parent associations be renamed “substitute school aides.” Though the change appears to be cosmetic, the new job title allows parents to bypass the citywide hiring freeze and retain their current employees at a similar salary to what they’ve paid for years.

According to Department of Education officials, calling parent-paid support staff “substitute school aides,”  would allow them to work under D.C. 37 union rules, rather than those of the teachers union (though they would not be D.C. 37 members). Under the D.C. 37 contract, substitute school aides are paid about $12 per hour and are not given benefits — conditions that mirror their current work situation. Parent associations can pay them throughout the year, rather than having to collect all the money before school starts, as some had worried. Were these employees to become members of the teachers union, they would have to be paid significantly more and receive benefits, which few parent associations say they can afford to offer.

Previously, these employees were vetted and hired by parent associations to serve as recess aides, clerical workers, and teaching assistants. They were not affiliated with any union. After the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, complained that city schools were employing non-UFT workers for UFT jobs, the DOE said it would crackdown on the practice.

One thing working in the PTA’s favor is that the job title, “substitute school aide,” is already being used in some schools, although DOE officials could not say how widely.

The tentative agreement, reached during a meeting today at Tweed Courthouse which Klein, UFT president Michael Mulgrew, elected officials and parents attended, is not a sure bet. D.C. 37 officials were not present at the meeting and have yet to agree to go along with the plan.

It may be a tough sell. Today, the DOE released the number of teachers and administrative staff who have been “excessed” this year, meaning that they have lost their jobs and are looking for work within the school system. According to the department’s numbers, 900 school support staff employees have been excessed, among them many substitute school aides. Currently, there are only 100 vacancies for these positions in the city. With hundreds of its own members already looking for jobs, it could be difficult for D.C. 37 to allow these employees to work under its job title, but not hold union membership.

“Everyone in the room felt very positive about the chances of having supplemental assistants or whatever specific title they will have, in the classroom this fall,” said City Councilman Daniel Garodnick. “But again we did not finalize it today,” he cautioned.

Ron Davis, a spokesman for the UFT said this wasn’t a long term solution. “We will be exploring ways to develop some apprenticeship or internship program so these teaching assistants can eventually become teachers,” he said. As for support staff who do clerical work and are not on the teaching track, “That’s something we’re going to have to work out,” he said.

“I think everybody’s happy with this short term solution,” said Jennifer Noban, president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Lillie Devereaux Blake School (P.S. 6), who attended the meeting today. Noban said her school had 17 parent-paid aides.

D.C. 37 officials could not be reached for comment this evening.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”