party like it's 2009

UFT making governance a priority in Albany as new mayor nears

Two members of the Campaign for Better Schools at today's press conference. Photo courtesy of the Campaign for Better Schools
Members of the Campaign for Better Schools, a coalition of community groups, protested against mayoral control when it was up for renewal in 2009.

With the city nine months from getting a new mayor, the United Federation of Teachers is gearing up to ask legislators to ensure that Mayor Bloomberg’s brand of school governance cannot be repeated.

The union wants legislation introduced that would significantly constrain the mayor’s education authority. The proposal closely resembles the union’s school governance platform from 2009, when the law giving control of the city’s schools to the mayor was last revised. But it comes at a time when all of the leading mayoral candidates have pledged to move away from Bloomberg’s imperious approach to school governance.

Some pieces of the proposal, such as to give elected parent councils authority over decisions about where to locate schools, would be accomplished by legislation already pending in Albany. The rest — including stripping the majority vote on the Panel for Educational Policy from the mayor, would require a new bill.

“Our lobbyists in Albany understand that this is now going to become a piece of legislation” in the current legislative session, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in an interview.

The proposal, which will become official when the union’s Delegate Assembly signs off on it, comes two years before the the law giving control of the city’s schools to the mayor is set to expire. But Mulgrew said now is the time to constrain the mayor’s power.

“We have a system of governance that no one ever thought would be as abused as it has been,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for us to not fight for something different so this cannot happen again.”

Since the legislature gave Bloomberg control of the city’s school in 2002, he has drawn criticism for ruling with a heavy hand and not including communities in decisions about them. Especially after a 2009 revision, the state’s school governance law requires that communities be given a chance to provide feedback about proposed policies, but the ultimate decision lies with the mayor and Panel for Educational Policy, whose members mostly serve at his will.

The leading mayoral candidates have all criticized the way Bloomberg has run the school system and pledged to change the tone at the Department of Education. But only Comptroller John Liu, who released a proposal for restructuring the Panel for Educational Policy last month, has committed to ceding any of the authority he is seeking.

A more common position is one former comptroller Bill Thompson has offered: “I still support mayoral control but it’s more about who the mayor is,” he said at a forum in November.

Responding to the UFT’s proposal today, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign released a statement that said only, “”We are opposed.”

Critics of the teachers union said the proposal would mark a regression for the school system.

“With its latest missive calling for the end of mayoral control of the schools, the union has made it clear that its vision of progress is to return New York City to the days of patronage, graft and corruption with a system that has no accountability whatsoever,” said Chandra Hayslett, communications director of StudentsFirstNY, in a statement.

But Mulgrew said the union was committed to preserving mayoral control, as it was in 2009. “People forget that the school boards were not working very well either,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to that.”

Instead, he said, the union just wants checks and balances on the mayor’s power. In other cities with mayoral control, he said, “Everybody else figured out you needed checks and balances.”

The recommendations were drafted by the union’s committee on school governance, which was reconstituted last fall after becoming dormant when mayoral control was renewed in 2009.

What the UFT is recommending:

Instead of appointing eight of the 13 Panel for Educational Policy members, the mayor would appoint only five. (The union endorsed that configuration in 2009, but then-President Randi Weingarten did not promote it.) Borough presidents would still appoint five. The remaining three slots would be filled by appointees of the comptroller, public advocate, and City Council speaker. Members would serve for three-year terms, not at the will of those who appointed them.

The mayor would choose a chancellor from three candidates selected by the PEP. The chancellor would have already have the credentials to become a superintendent in New York State, and he or she would have to be re-approved every two years.

Community Education Councils would have to approve school co-locations or relocations, as a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Keith Wright would require.

District superintendents would regain some of the authority they lost over the course of the Bloomberg administration. The chancellor would pick superintendents from nominees put forth by Community Education Councils, and superintendents would serve three-year terms.

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.”