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)

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.”