policy matters

The education governor's race: A Paladino and Cuomo primer

You may have noticed that we have a governor’s race going on in New York. But amid the love children, viral cell-phone videos, and upsetting e-mail forwards, policy issues are getting even more overshadowed than usual — including where the two candidates stand on education.

To remedy this, I’ve compiled a brief primer outlining the education stances of the Democrat, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and the Republican, Tea Party-ite Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, the state's attorney general, is in the Obama Democrat camp on education.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo, the state's attorney general, sides with Obama and Bloomberg on education. (Photo via ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/saeba/4015439957/sizes/m/in/photostream/##Flickr## user ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/saeba/##saebaryo##)

Andrew Cuomo

HIS CAMP: Cuomo is framing himself as the great hope that Democrats for Education Reform activists once dreamed David Paterson would be — a “Barack Obama Democrat” on education, as one source put it to me. (Or, you might say, an “ideolocrat.”)

Cuomo kept himself out of the Race to the Top legislative battle (at least publicly). But his published platform mirrors DFER’s insistence on raising the cap on charter schools, and it quotes charter supporters’ warning that a union-backed push for more public consultation before opening a charter school would have amounted to a “poison pill.”

WHAT HE MIGHT DO: Cuomo’s decision to affiliate with DFER, Mayor Bloomberg, and the entrepreneurial camp on schools gives him a potentially long education wish list. That’s because almost all of the changes favored by these reformers are legislative; teacher tenure, “last in, first out” firing patterns, teacher pensions, and charter school growth are all matters of state law.

While other state Democrats (namely Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver) have allied themselves with the teachers union, Cuomo could act as a counter-force pushing for more changes to the state’s education law. It’s worth noting that nearly all of the education agenda Bloomberg laid out this week on NBC would require changes to state law.

WHY HE MIGHT NOT DO IT: Cuomo’s probably in for a fight with Silver and other Albany lawmakers, but will education be at the top of his list? The tough budget climate might give him even less leverage to pursue his agenda. A case in point is Eliot Spitzer, who balanced his endorsement of a charter cap lift with ending the long-running stalemate over the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. But the millions Spitzer promised have substantially tapered in the ugly budget climate, making “sweetener” deals hard to imagine.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman, favors charter schools, vouchers, and firing the Board of Regents.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino, a Buffalo businessman, favors charter schools, vouchers, and firing the Board of Regents. (Photo via ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/azipaybarah/4901884630/sizes/m/in/photostream/##WNYC's Azi Paybarah##)

Carl Paladino

HIS CAMP: Paladino’s campaign didn’t return my phone calls requesting information about his position on education, so I had to rely on his public statements (especially this Daily News interview) and a brief (and occasionally alarming) rundown of his education positions on his web site.

The statements suggest he would take Cuomo’s entrepreneurial endorsements (pro-charter schools, pro-Race to the Top) and raise them a long mile by endorsing vouchers, attempting to fire the entire state Board of Regents, repealing the 3020-A law that governs how teachers are fired, and overhauling education funding streams. He has promised to cut the state government by 20%, but this week he told the Daily News flatly, “I will not cut education funding.”

WHAT HE MIGHT DO: Paladino’s education statement also suggests creating “residential charter schools” that would begin in kindergarten. Paladino’s vision:

To ensure that no child is left behind, Carl will create residential charters in the worst urban school district where children reside starting at kindergarten. These charters will tackle problems created by dysfunctional homes such as ensuring proper dress codes, food is supplied and overall conditions provide a learning atmosphere.

The candidate also has specific plans for the members of the Board of Regents, who the statement says will have to “submit to the Governor signed and undated letters of resignation as of January 1, 2011.” The statement goes on, “As Governor, Carl will accept the resignation of those who think protecting union leaders is more important than not leaving any children behind.”

Paladino’s plans for the remaining Regents members, who govern the state’s education system, include this “demand”:

Carl will demand that the Regents Board remove the School Board and Superintendents of all school systems presently achieving a less than 60 percent graduation rate or having more than 25 percent of its schools in any form of academic distress and replace them with a competent “Special Master” with full authority to implement the changes necessary to effectively and quickly address the dysfunction.

WHY HE MIGHT NOT DO IT: Education officials and state leaders have sometimes quietly imagined a kind of state version of mayoral control that would dismantle the State Board of Regents, which oversees the state education system. But such an overhaul would be an uphill battle given that the Regents are appointed not by the governor, but by the state legislature.

Demanding resignations letters from Merryl Tisch and her fellow Regents would be a bully-pulpit move, but not a real request, and Paladino certainly would not have the authority to dictate how Tisch deals with local superintendents — nor could Tisch unilaterally fire local school boards and superintendents.

By a “residential charter school,” Paladino may have in mind something like the SEED School in D.C., a boarding charter school that is featured in the film “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” But SEED begins in middle school, not kindergarten.

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.”