Budget battles

Proposed budget would slash funds to SUNY charter authorizer

The state organization commonly cited as a national model for approving and overseeing charter schools is facing quietly proposed cuts that would slash its budget by nearly 70 percent.

The State University of New York’s Charter School Institute (CSI), which oversees charter schools from the union-run UFT School to the popular KIPP schools, is slated to lose $1.7 million of its $2.4 million budget under budgets proposed by both the Assembly and the Senate.

CSI is one of the groups that are the prime oversight bodies for the state’s charter schools. Known as “authorizers,” the groups are responsible for reviewing proposals for new charter schools, monitoring the schools they approve, and closing charters they deem under-performing. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has praised CSI for its rigor and willingness to shutter schools that don’t live up to high expectations.

“All of that takes real human resources,” said Jonas Chartock, the agency’s executive director.

The cuts are a serious threat but far from a done deal. The institute has historically been a target of political efforts, often supported by the teachers union, to weaken its authority to open charter schools. But the union is not supporting these cuts. Rather, the proposals appear to be more prompted by the state’s financial duress.

The legislature frequently proposes drastic cuts to agencies in initial budget proposals that are later reduced as the final budget is negotiated, charter school advocate Peter Murphy said.  The point is to force agencies to open up and justify their spending. “I’m not trying to minimize it, but it’s going to be subject of negotiation,” said Murphy. The governor’s proposed budget plan leaves the Charter Schools Institute’s funding intact.

New York State United Teachers president Richard Ianuzzi, who has frequently criticized charter schools for a lack of state oversight, today defended SUNY against the proposed cuts.

“A cut that would reduce oversight for charter schools just would not be in the best interests of accountability for the dollars the state is spending,” Ianuzzi said. “If you’re allocating the dollars for charter schools, you should be allocating the dollars to monitor them properly.”

Chartock said that he plans to develop stronger tools to make sure that the Institute’s charters schools improve their services to special education students and English learners, two groups that charter school detractors and supporters both say should be better served by the schools.

“We want to be able to do that in real time,” he said, “but this would really hinder our ability to respond to the critical questions that do surround charters.”

The cuts would be particularly devastating given that the number of charter schools CSI is responsible for overseeing is only likely to increase in the near future, Chartock said. Many advocates are urging Albany to lift the cap by June to increase the state’s competitive edge in the second round of the Race to the Top competition.

CSI is not the leanest authorizer in the state, but it does employ fewer staff per school than other authorizers. The agency employs 14 professional and four support staff members to oversee 74 of the state’s 160 charter schools. The city’s charter school office, which authorizes 66 schools, employs 10 staffers and operates with a budget of just under $1 million. The State Education Department’s Charter School Office, which oversees the 28 schools authorized by the Board of Regents, includes 10 professional and one support staff member.

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Members of the Newark school board in February with Mayor Ras Baraka and former Superintendent Christopher Cerf.

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, they will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The departure, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the finalist shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”

Mixed messages

Strange graffiti scrawled on New York City education department headquarters, police say

Strange graffiti was scrawled on the education department headquarters.

Before 7 a.m. on Tuesday, cryptic messages were scrawled on the Corinthian columns of Tweed Courthouse, the historic education department headquarters in lower Manhattan.

The message meant to be conveyed by the graffiti, written in royal blue spray paint, was unclear. It was largely a rambling series of words related to social justice such as “unconstitutional murder lower economic education feudal class” and “superior erudite tyrants,” according to the New York City Police Department.

An investigation has been launched, but police said no description is available of who might have left the graffiti or why.

The education department’s maintenance team quickly began cleaning up the mess with a large pressure cleaner.

Tweed Courthouse is a New York City landmark and we’re disappointed that someone would vandalize the building,” spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

The courthouse was designated as a landmark in 1984, and became the education department headquarters in the early 2000s after extensive renovations.

It took two decades to build and was completed in 1881, according to city records. Construction was interrupted by the trial of the legendary Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, who embezzled money through the project. He eventually was tried in an unfinished courtroom there and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Police didn’t say what types of charges or fines the tagger might face.