Q and A

Suspensions, evaluations and the Absent Teacher Reserve: What a new union boss has on his mind

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mark Cannizzaro

Mark Cannizzaro thinks New York City principals have a nearly impossible job. Now, it’s up to him to help them get it done.

This September, Cannizzaro will become president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents more than 6,000 school principals, assistant principals and other education administrators.

“Nothing is more challenging than leading a school or being in school leadership,” Cannizzaro told Chalkbeat.

After a decade of leadership, Ernest Logan recently announced his retirement. Cannizzaro, who has served as executive vice president, will take the helm until at least 2018, when the next election will be held.

The union’s relationship with City Hall has been relatively smooth under Mayor Bill de Blasio. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be clashes. The CSA has been outspoken about its concerns over changes to school discipline policies and about the Renewal program, the city’s expensive turnaround strategy for struggling schools.

Principals themselves have also criticized what they see as a loss of autonomy under the current administration — a far cry from when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein described principals as the CEOs of their schools. For example, the education department recently announced it would place unassigned educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools that have vacancies, even potentially over principals’ objections.

In an interview with Chalkbeat just before taking on his new role, Cannizzaro, a former Staten Island principal, suggested he would take a quieter approach to getting things done.

He also seemed to tone down his predecessor’s criticism of Renewal, saying there have been tangible gains in some schools.

Here’s what else he had to say about principal evaluations, working with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and the bane of school administrators everywhere: mountains of paperwork.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the single most pressing problem facing principals today?

Let me talk about the problem the system faces with our folks right now. It’s a retention and recruitment problem.

The job is virtually, by the numbers, undoable. The amount of things that you have to know and be able to do — from the size of the chancellor’s regulations to standard operating procedure, the manuals, the paperwork, all of the work and the compliance issues — the workload is tremendous. And the seasoned principal finds the shortcuts to get the job done. A new person coming in doesn’t know right away what things they can work around, which becomes overwhelming.

I think between the paperwork and the workload, budgets are always a challenge. Too many people spend their summers fighting for the basic minimum when they should be spending their summers planning curriculum and setting up their schools.

These have been ongoing issues. I was a principal under the prior administration and I had the issues of paperwork and budget concerns then, also.

Under de Blasio, the school system was reorganized in such a way that principals had to answer to superintendents again. What do you think of that change?

I was a proponent of superintendents being brought back into the districts and empowered, mainly because I always felt it was important to have someone who knew my school well to also be the person who was evaluating me, rating me and hopefully providing support to me.

In the former structure, it’s not that I felt that there was a lack of support. I felt the support was OK. But mainly, the evaluation was based on statistics that came out and the person who was evaluating didn’t always have such an intimate relationship to have context around those numbers.

Should student test scores count in principal evaluations?

I think it’s difficult to get around test scores being used at all, but right now they count for about 50 percent of an evaluation, which is way too much. We’re talking about test scores, really, in math and English. … Our school leaders feel that they are responsible for so many things other than just math and English.

What changes under this administration have been the most helpful for principals?

I mean, look, we have an educator, which I think is a huge plus because we’re able to speak to the chancellor. She’s been there. She’s walked in those shoes.

Now, have we had — and I’m not going to share specifics with you — but have we had concerns where we felt that, “Hey, don’t forget us. We’re here leading this system, making this system work”? Of course. But we had those concerns also with the other administration from time to time.

Have there been any other changes under this current administration that were particularly positive or negative for your members?

I think what’s been most helpful is, it’s very, very easy to pick up the phone to have conversations. Carmen has been very open. She comes here often, she comes to our chancellor’s consultations — which is a change. And I think that’s a positive change.

We meet once a month with a team of the chancellor’s representatives. And we just talk about issues. She comes herself to that — almost all of them. She’s here and she is listening.

Some principals have told us that the restructuring of the system has led to more micromanagement on the ground. Is that a fair perception?

I don’t know if micromanagement is the term, but in some areas, our folks feel that their discretion or their ability to make the decisions — it’s not what it should be.

Can you give an example?

The changes in the discipline code. The decision whether to suspend a child shouldn’t be on anyone else’s plate other than the principal of the school. They need to make the decision because they’re closest. They know the effects on the community. They know what’s best for the child, as well as the other children.

When a child’s behavior is unacceptable, we understand that doesn’t mean the child needs to be cast aside. We need to also be mindful of the fact that there is still a child there that now needs to be welcomed back when he or she comes back. So there are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing.

But wasn’t the restriction on K-2 suspensions enacted because suspensions were being overused?

You can’t jump to suspension. Suspension is not the first answer to most things, unless something was so egregious. And there were probably areas and pockets where it maybe was being overused. But in a system this large, those are the areas where you need to address and do a little digging and find out what it is, and what’s the reason and how come this is happening here? And let’s address how come it’s happening here.

You’ve been pretty measured so far in talking about the city’s decision to place educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools. Isn’t this a reversal of the chancellor’s promise not to use forced placement?

If I’ve been measured, it’s because we haven’t seen the implementation yet, and there’s no reason to not be measured until we see the implementation. And we’ve had a very consistent, ongoing and open dialogue with the DOE [Department of Education] on being able to work together to make sure that schools ultimately benefit and no one is harmed here.

Obviously it’s a change in the way they’ve been doing things. But if you go back, there was a time when every excessed person was placed. Then there was this change in policy — which listen, for school leaders, it was great. You didn’t have someone placed in your building.

But then the practical issues came in. The media and the public were saying, “Look at all of this money that is being spent.” So everybody wanted to solve it their own way. But remember the way that this came up was through collective bargaining.

The United Federation of Teachers did the bargaining. But your members are also affected by the change.

Don’t get me wrong, every principal would want their ability to simply pick whomever they want whenever they want. But there’s a reality here and we’re going to work very closely to make sure this is done well.

Your predecessor was pretty outspoken about the rollout of the Renewal program. He once called it a “recipe for disaster.” What do you think about it?

The rollout had some real issues. We’ve since gotten a lot better.

In an effort to improve the Renewal schools, there were so many people going in to evaluate and probably not enough people going in to support one vision. So you had a group come in and say, “OK, let’s do this.” And another group would come in and maybe they hadn’t communicated the way they should have.

[Now] I think there’s just better communication between the school, who’s supporting and who’s evaluating.

The principal is the one at the center of this. The principal is the one who is ultimately responsible. The principal is the one who is being held accountable. The support has to come around what the principal needs.

We recently reported that schools in the program aren’t showing significant gains compared to schools not in the program.

There are some schools making some tremendous gains, and there are schools that need more resources. The other thing is, how old is the Renewal program? Do some research and find out how long it normally takes for school turnaround to show results in the scores.

But the mayor was the one who promised “fast and intense” improvements in these schools.

Everybody is in a rush, and I understand why everybody is in a rush. What it means is, let’s go back to the superintendent relationship. I want to know from the superintendent, who is back in the schools, how does this school look today compared to the way it looked when it started. If there’s improvement, the scores will follow.

How will your leadership be different from Logan’s?

I’m going to build on some of the great things that Ernie has done.

You probably won’t necessarily know about all of my issues unless I feel like I need you to know about my issues. If I can get something done quietly, that’s probably the most effective way to accomplish something.

But I also have a habit of telling the truth. And sometimes people will agree, and sometimes people won’t agree — but I like to engage people in the debate, then.

We have 6,300 or 6,400 active members. Many, many of them go about their jobs every day and do a great job. We don’t hear from them that much and they don’t hear from us as much as they probably should. This is their union. We need to get that mantra out there.

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”