postponed

Lawsuit to halt charter school co-locations on hold pending city review

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at rolling back school space plans approved under the Bloomberg administration say they are putting their litigation on hold until Chancellor Carmen Fariña reviews the plans.

A group of City Council members filed the lawsuit in December with the goal of undoing dozens of school co-locations that the Panel for Educational Policy approved last year. Many of the co-locations would allow privately managed charter schools to use public space, a practice that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would curb.

Public Advocate Letitia James, who filed the suit along with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and others, told Chalkbeat that she had pushed back an upcoming court date in the suit after meeting with Fariña last week.

“I think I’m going to wait until the chancellor reviews each and every one,” James said. “But she and I will continue to have discussions.”

The postponement came after a handful of politically connected schools were already dropped from the suit. It also came as charter school advocates rallied Thursday at City Hall against the lawsuit, which they said could prevent thousands of students from having a place to attend school this fall.

Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which organized the rally, said the news was a positive development but not enough to put charter school operators and families at ease. “We’re glad that Ms. James changed course,” he said. “However, unless other parties to the suit also adjourn, charter school children remain at risk.”

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit against the plans, said the suit’s main allegations, including that the city did not calculate available space in school buildings properly, remain true. But he said he wanted to let Fariña reassess school space plans approved last year before proceeding, as she has said publicly that she would do.

A spokesman for the Department of Education reiterated that promise today. “We’ve committed to reviewing the proposals that were approved this fall to ensure that they are in best interests of all students and schools,” Devon Puglia said. “It’s simply the responsible approach to take as we listen to communities across the city.”

Fariña has criticized the data the department used to calculate available space on several occasions, including at her first Panel for Educational Policy meeting last week. She has also said that parents and other stakeholders were too often excluded from decision-making in the past.

Schwartz suggested that parent groups in the districts and schools that would be affected by the plans could get a role in determining whether they are carried out. “There was an agreement on a process, a real genuine process,” he said.

The schools that were dropped from the suit had formulated their space plans with public support, Schwartz said.

Dream Charter School, which is housed in Mark-Viverito’s district, was removed because there was “zero opposition” to the plans, Schwartz said. He said the same went for a charter school being started by Children’s Aid Society, whose CEO Richard Buery was a member of de Blasio’s transition team, though there was plenty of criticism for the plan at a September public hearing, according to city documents.

A third charter school, Icahn Charter School, was removed after it withdrew its co-location proposal after securing private space.

Schwartz said the Children’s Aid Society got another pass because it did not retain the Arnold & Porter law firm to fight the suit the way that Success Academy, which has eight schools affected, and some other charter operators did. Success Academy’s chief legal officer used to work at that firm, which has an active pro bono practice defending charter schools.

Schwartz said Success Academy — whose CEO, Eva Moskowitz, was a target for de Blasio’s charter school criticisms on the campaign trail — was a main reason that litigation had been necessary in the first place.

“If Success wasn’t involved there would still be opposition, but it wouldn’t be as nasty,” Schwartz said. “There would probably be more of an effort by the charter schools to work things out.”

As for working it out, Schwartz said there was an obvious reason for Fariña to come to a compromise over the lawsuit, beyond her beliefs about how the school system should be run.

“I think the chancellor wants to resolve it and not be at war with her fellow officeholders,” he said.

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede