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.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”