school closing season

Union may take effort to stop school closures to Albany

UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks to teachers gathered outside DOE headquarters at Tweed Courthouse to protest the city's plan to close 26 schools.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew speaks to teachers gathered outside DOE headquarters at Tweed Courthouse to protest the city's plans to close 26 schools.

In the opening shot of this year’s battle over the city’s plan to close 26 schools, teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew vowed to take the fight all the way to Albany.

State law gives the city ample leeway to close schools, and the union’s successful lawsuit that last year blocked the city from closing 19 schools was based primarily on process questions rather than a policy challenge.

This year, Mulgrew said, the union plans to fight to change the policy and will lobby for changes to the law if necessary.

In the first of what he vowed would be many protests, Mulgrew accused city officials of neglecting their responsibilities to help schools improve.

“Their job is not to sit back and monitor data,” Mulgrew said. “Their job is to come in and say, ‘what can we do?'”

Teachers from across the city rallied outside the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse, with the protest beginning on Chambers Street and spilling around the corner onto Broadway.

Mulgrew criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his aggressive school closure policies, which the union president characterized as “bragging” about how many schools the city has shut down. In a speech last year, the mayor promised to shutter the lowest-performing 10 percent of city schools.

“The only way to do that is to sit back and not give the schools the support they need,” Mulgrew said.

City officials have tried to do a more thorough job than they did last year of documenting the schools’ struggles and meeting with parents and school staff to explain their rationale for closing the schools. For example, city officials distributed fact sheets about the efforts the city has already made to improve the school.

But a teacher from one of the schools slated to close, the Monroe Academy for Business and Law, disputed the city’s argument that it has tried to help the school.

“It was more a lie sheet than a fact sheet,” the teacher said, arguing that the city has not provided the leadership or community support that it claims.

Jerome Moore, a senior at Franklin Lane High School, which will graduate its last class this year, said that the city’s policy of phasing out schools hurts the students already attending them.

“During my junior year, we lost valuable teachers, valuable classes, valuable resources,” Moore said. “They expected us to just deal with the closings and not give us any resources.”

Some of the teachers at the rally came from large high schools that the city has not slated for closure, but said that their schools suffer when the city closes nearby schools and the city’s most struggling students move to other large schools.

“I’m concerned that they’re going to try to close all of our schools sooner or later,” said Dino Sferrazza, a teacher at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens.

“It’s hard to understand why the UFT would be against replacing the worst of the worst schools unless they’re simply interested in keeping jobs for their members rather than doing what’s best for our kids,” said Department of Education spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld. “We’ve turned around many struggling schools in the past, but sometimes schools simply cannot be fixed, and communities deserve new schools with strong leadership and good teaching.”

The battle over school closures will be one of the first challenges that face incoming schools chancellor Cathie Black. Yesterday, Black and Mulgrew sat down formally for the first time, in a 45-minute meeting at the UFT headquarters in lower Manhattan that both characterized as a good conversation.

“Obviously we have a lot of work to do,” Mulgrew said. “I wait to judge people on their actions.”


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”