who should rule the schools (updated)

Critics, City Hall, and union struck deal, but Senate Dems refused

Bloomberg administration officials are ending a sleepless week in Albany today with no idea whatsoever of how to get mayoral control renewed, along with the unsettling realization that the stalemate could go on for the rest of the summer.

In the end, it wasn’t that the mayor’s office couldn’t strike a deal with the largest group criticizing mayoral control, the Campaign for Better Schools, or with the city teachers’ union, which had pushed for checks early on. All three parties signed onto a deal together earlier this week, writing down a Memorandum of Understanding that would have put in place parent-training centers that senators said they wanted to add.

But Senate Democrats ultimately did not go along with the deal.

“It’s not like we couldn’t agree on terms. It’s like they couldn’t agree on terms amongst themselves,” an exhausted and depressed city official, speaking on background, said in an interview today.

“They clearly were saying one thing to us yesterday and doing something different,” said teachers union president Randi Weingarten. “That was very frustrating.”

Union, campaign, and city officials began their discussions Tuesday after senators walked away from a deal that would have brought to a vote a version of the bill passed by the Assembly preserving mayoral control with some tweaks. Sens. John Sampson and Malcolm Smith, two of the Senate Democrats’ four leaders, and Sen. Daniel Squadron, a Bloomberg ally who had to split early due to a prior engagement, his wedding, made the deal, but once Squadron left for his honeymoon, the Democrats declined to bring the bill to a vote.

At a loss, City Hall officials decided to meet with Easton and the main lobbyist for the state teachers’ union, Stephen Allinger. Easton had been pushing for a separate bill that would have taken more power away from the mayor. But he recently had pivoted to pushing for a compromise that would have guaranteed funding for parent training centers across the boroughs.

In the Senate’s library, a group including Micah Lasher, the Department of Education’s lobbyist; Allinger, and Easton crafted a deal that would have provided the parent training centers, as Easton and the union wanted — but would have done so through a written Memorandum of Understanding, rather than an amendment to the law, in keeping with Bloomberg’s desire, and with the reality that the Assembly, which would have to agree to amendments to make them law, has already adjourned for summer.

The memo’s language was nearly identical to that in an amendment introduced by Smith, the city official said. The only major change was that instead of having New York University run the initiative, that responsibility would go to CUNY, along with the $1.6 million a year to fund it. The city thought that arrangement would prevent abuse, and legislators liked that the funding wouldn’t stay in Manhattan, the source said.

Democratic senators told the group that they would go along with the agreement, Weingarten said. But when Sampson emerged from session last night at 10:30, he infuriated city officials by declaring, “This is not one-tenth of what I need,” according to the city source.

Democratic Sen. Shirley Huntley told Beth Fertig at WNYC why she refused to cooperate:

Queens Democrat Shirley Huntley told WNYC they wanted to send a message.

… Senator Huntley said she didn’t appreciate how the teachers union and other parties got involved.  “When I’m pressured I do nothing, ” she said, calling the phone calls “obnoxious” and adding, “There was no need for the pressure.”

That same offer is no longer on the table after last night’s blow-up, the city official said today, adding that the situation in Albany is the most chaotic he has ever seen.

Weingarten said the lack of an agreement made for a “very dangerous” period in time:

“Are there going to be riots on the street? No, of course not. But you have a situation where you have a bill that’s ready to roll in terms of changes to governance; at the same time you have a governance system that was used last 7 or 8 years ago, and is very outdated or outmoded, doesn’t answer the question of what happens to community boards or CEC’s — so it’s a very chaotic period of time.”

Her recommendation? “We need to take a big time out, and take a big sigh, and start again on Monday,” she said.

But senators have left Albany and do not intend to return until the end of the summer. They will return only if Gov. Paterson calls them back. On his weekly radio show today, Bloomberg said Paterson should use state troopers to retrieve the legislators.

CLARIFICATION: Billy Easton, the director of the Campaign for Better Schools, disputed part of this story today. “I did not and never have lobbied against the Better Schools Act,” he said. We have deleted the sentence containing that information.

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.”