blame game

Queens charter fight flares as parents, teachers turn on board

A teacher contract fight at Merrick Academy Charter School has expanded into a dispute over the school’s financial and physical conditions.

Emails sent to GothamSchools offer a window into a school where parents, teachers, and board members are locked in a bitter fight, trading accusations about mismanagement, ceiling leaks, and an alleged lack of textbooks. Problems began late last year when teachers and union officials accused the charter school’s board of spending millions of dollars on a for-profit management organization, Victory Schools.

Now, teachers and parents are blaming the board for shortchanging students on classroom supplies and not making needed repairs. In response, the board is accusing teachers of fabricating the problems. Meanwhile, the school’s founding principal has left suddenly, citing personal reasons.

In 2007, an overwhelming majority of teachers at Merrick Academy voted to make the United Federation of Teachers their exclusive bargaining agent, but since then the UFT and school’s board have yet to reach a contract agreement. Last December, UFT officials held a news conference in front of the school to protest its contract with Victory Schools.

Kenneth Eriabadour, who has two children in the K-6 school, said he’s concerned about financial mismanagement.

“The school has no adequate heat, all the roofs are leaking,” he said. “There are no books, there are no materials for these children to study with. I used to go to Wal-Mart and get papers and pencils to send to school every week. Where is all the money going?”

Parents have been lodging their complaints with SUNY Charter Institute, which authorized the school and is tasked with its oversight.

Executive director of the institute, Jonas Chartock, said the institute forwarded parents’ complaints to the school’s board.

“The Institute was satisfied that the school had taken appropriate measures to address relatively common issues for school buildings — the temporary use of supplemental heaters when the furnace was being repaired and for classrooms where the existing heating system is now insufficient were installed and the school is working through appropriate channels to have the leak issues addressed,” he wrote in an email.

Interim principal Carolyn Thomas directed calls about the school to board president Gerald Karikari, who did not return calls for comment.

Opened in 2000, Merrick Academy’s founding board included Congressman Gregory Meeks and State Senate President Malcolm Smith, both of whom have left the board. Smith’s former business partner, Darryl Greene, still sits on Merrick’s board. In 1999, Greene was convicted of stealing half a million dollars from city agencies and, earlier this month, he backed out of business ties he had with the company selected to run a video slot machine parlor at Aqueduct Raceway.

The Department of Education’s charter school office has little contact with Merrick leaders, as the school is authorized by SUNY and leases its own building.

Here’s the email Jonas Chartock, executive director of SUNY Charter Schools Institute, sent to me:

The Institute was informed in writing yesterday that Merrick’s principal was taking an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons. Long time assistant principal Carolyn Thomas has been named interim principal.

In the past two months, the Institute has received several complaints funneled through a small group of individuals in the school community. The Institute also received a letter of complaint from UFT President Michael Mulgrew. Prior to this period, the Institute had received few if any complaints about the school.

Per our policy, we referred all complaints to the school and its board of Trustees, with the exception of those involving the health and safety of students. An issue was brought to our attention regarding a heating problem and a leaking roof. The Institute’s Vice President and General Counsel spoke with the school’s board chair, a member of the board, the head of the parent teacher association, and the school’s principal. The Institute was satisfied that the school had taken appropriate measures to address relatively common issues for school buildings — the temporary use of supplemental heaters when the furnace was being repaired and for classrooms where the existing heating system is now insufficient were installed and the school is working through appropriate channels to have the leak issues addressed.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.