On the hunt

Schools are hiring, but veteran teachers say job outlook is grim

With just weeks to find teaching positions before the start of the school year, recent college graduates rubbed shoulders with veteran teachers at a Department of Education job fair yesterday.

New teachers who attended the fair said they are optimistic about their chances of finding a school to hire them, now that the city has relaxed its two-year-old hiring restrictions.

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be — a lot of my friends have already received offers,” said Arbiana Asani, who is looking for an English teaching position after graduating from Hunter College in June.

But pessimism was the prevailing mood at the fair among experienced teachers whose previous positions were recently eliminated. Those teachers said few jobs were advertised in their license areas and that some principals seemed to balk at the expense that would accompany their years of experience.

Caroline Schulz said she left the job fair with the sense that no schools would be hiring an art teacher so late in the summer. She has twice been excessed from art teaching jobs at a time when more principals are unable to fund full-time arts teachers. This will be her second time entering the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool for teachers whose positions have been eliminated.

“The reasons were definitely the budget cuts,” said Schulz, who has been teaching for close to two decades. “In my experience, it’s always the arts that are hit first.”

Schools received their budgets from the DOE later this year than usual, forcing principals to cut positions over the summer. The department has not yet released information on how many teacher positions were cut.

Mary Smith, a science teacher, said she has scrambled to apply for jobs since she was excessed from a Brooklyn high school in July because she was the least senior teacher on staff. She also attended a job fair in Brooklyn at the beginning of the month. This week’s fair featured schools in the Bronx and Manhattan.

Smith said she got a grim sense of her job prospects from meeting with principals and teachers at both fairs. Some of them, she said, didn’t seem committed to interviewing all of the job candidates available.

“They talked, they were pleasant, but some of them packed up their tables and left by 4 o’clock,” Smith said. She said the job hunt has taken time away from her teaching duties.

“By now, August 16, I should be starting to put my lesson plans together, reviewing the Regents so I know my plan for next year. But I’m in limbo,” Smith said.

A new rule requires schools to interview teachers in the ATR pool but does not require that they hire from the pool.

One social sciences teacher who asked not to be named said she worried principals viewed her 30 years of teaching experience as a reason not to hire her. “The principals look at our resumes, and when they see the date or how many years we’ve been teaching, they sum up that we cost too much. One looked at my resume and just said, ‘Oh, it looks like you’ve been teaching for a while.’” Meanwhile, she added, “They’re hiring brand new teachers who have never taught, they just got out of college.”

The teacher, who brought a book bag stuffed with portfolios of past students’ work to the job fair to show interviewers, said she was dismayed to find teachers and guidance counselors standing in for principals. “They’re sending a message that it’s not that important to fill whatever position, because the teacher doesn’t have the authority to hire anyone anyway.”

This will be her first year in the ATR pool. She lost her job after her school, M.S. 321 in Manhattan, closed due to poor performance.

Though her salary will not change this year even if she can only find work as a substitute, she said the DOE is not using her to her full potential. “Right now I would be giving my free time to setting up my library in my classroom, and writing introductory letters to parents and students, welcoming them to the school,” she said.

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.”