closure fight

In stunning rebuke, oversight board rejects two of de Blasio’s school closure plans

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

An oversight board rejected two of the de Blasio administration’s proposed school closures and voted to postpone a third after an emotional hearing that stretched into Thursday morning — a stunning rebuke by an education panel that typically rubber stamps the mayor’s policies.

The vote by the Panel for Educational Policy came around 2 a.m. Thursday after more than seven hours of testimony from well over 100 parents and elected officials. The panel signed off on the city’s plans to shutter 10 other schools — the largest single wave of closures since de Blasio took office in 2014.

But the board’s decision to block the other closures raises fresh questions about the education department’s criteria for closing schools, and suggests that officials may face a higher bar in future when seeking approval for such controversial moves. The mayor appoints the majority of the panel’s 13 members, who typically green light the city’s proposals.

In this case, the panel faced intense pressure from supporters of the low-performing schools, which are part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $582 million school-turnaround program. They argued that the schools were actually showing signs of improvement but needed more time in the program.

“I believe that this vote and this decision is premature,” said City Councilman Mark Treyger, the chair of the council’s education committee, at the hearing. “School closures can rip a community apart.”

Education department officials have said the schools had either shed too many students or were too low performing to be viable. When deciding which struggling schools to close, officials say they consider the schools’ test scores, attendance, graduation rates, classroom instruction, leadership, and the school’s “overall trajectory for success.”

Still, some community members say that the city has not made it clear when schools perform poorly enough in any of those areas to warrant closure. Instead, many have complained that their schools were arbitrarily chosen for closure while other struggling schools were spared.

The two closures the panel blocked are both Queens schools in de Blasio’s “Renewal” improvement program: M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo and P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam. An education department spokesman said those two schools will remain open next year. The panel voted to postpone a decision on a third Renewal school that had been slated for closure, High School for Health Careers and Sciences in Manhattan.

P.S./M.S. 42 had attracted especially vocal responses from parents and elected officials, who were puzzled by the school’s inclusion on the closure list because it has made gains on its test scores and quality reviews  — even outperforming a number of other Renewal schools.

Weeks before the vote, City Hall rescinded one of the closure proposals, citing community pressure. The move inspired advocates at some of the other schools to keep making their case. While it’s unclear what motivated the panel’s “no” votes, they faced strong pressure to closely scrutinize the city’s plans before signing off.

The panel did approve the closure of five other schools in the Renewal program, an effort to rehabilitate the city’s lowest-performing schools with extra social services and academic support. While critics have called the program a misguided attempt to save schools that should instead be replaced, the schools’ supporters have argued that they were not given enough time to turn around since the program launched three years ago.

Including Thursday’s closures, there will be just under 50 schools remaining in the Renewal program, down from an original 94. (Twenty-one schools are being phased out of the improvement program after making progress.)

Thursday’s vote came just hours after news broke that Miami school superintendent Alberto Carvalho will replace retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, overshadowing a hearing that some parents and educators had hoped would draw attention to the city’s closure plans.

The meeting’s tone was reminiscent of similar public hearings under de Blasio’s predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who moved to close dozens of schools and drew fierce protest from local communities. On Wednesday, dozens of people testified against the city’s plans, while audience members interrupted the proceedings with chants of, “Save our schools!”

Here is a list of schools that will officially be closed at the end of this school year. (The oversight panel also approved five school openings and one truncation.)

The five Renewal schools the city will close:

  • P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio (District 4)
  • Coalition School for Social Change (District 4)
  • New Explorers High School (District 7)
  • Urban Science Academy (District 9)
  • P.S. 92 Bronx School (District 12)

The five other schools to be closed:

  • KAPPA IV (District 5)
  • Academy for Social Action (District 5)
  • Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute (District 8)
  • Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation (District 12)
  • Eubie Blake School (District 16)

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.