The scoop

Space-strapped charter school sent students to factory space

photo-3-copy
Security camera footage captures students walking into a building that is not certified for educational use but houses the offices for the Believe Charter School Network.

Strapped for space, a Brooklyn charter school network sent its students to classes at a facility that was only approved for factory and office use — not educational purposes, according to security camera footage and interviews with people who witnessed students’ use.

The footage and accounts document students’ regular trips to the space this summer and during the last school year. A student at the school told me that the space, a former factory at 33 Nassau Ave. in Williamsburg, is known to students as “the art building.”

View the full footage in a slideshow below.

The charter operator, Believe High Schools Network, appears to have begun to send students to the office space after its plan to open two new schools in a private facility hit a snag in 2009. Forced to improvise, the network arranged to house both of the two new schools in the same district school building used by its original school, Williamsburg Charter High School, a former employee said.

That was despite the fact that the second floor office space at 33 Nassau Ave. is certified by the city Department of Buildings only for use as a factory, shipping, storage, or office space.

State education law requires that charter schools use buildings approved for educational use. For that reason, Believe officials originally used the 33 Nassau space only for offices, said Joshua Morales, a former consultant to Believe.

In the last month, both the city and state departments of education have launched investigations into Believe’s use of the 33 Nassau space. The city department oversees Williamsburg Charter High School, and the state department oversees the two new schools, Northside and Southside charter high schools.

Officials at Believe did not return several phone call and e-mail requests for comment today.

The arrangement highlights the risks of the city’s current charter school space situation. New charter schools open each year, but they are promised no space in city buildings, leaving school leaders to make arrangements on their own — either by haggling and politicking with city officials to get a few floors inside a district school or by finding some other space and signing a lease.

The city investigation launched when a city school official visited 33 Nassau Ave. for a meeting. Believe’s official fliers advertise that 33 Nassau is used only for administrative reasons, but the official found students there taking class, said a source with knowledge of the situation.

Photographs from security cameras inside the school, obtained by GothamSchools, show students walking up the industrial building’s concrete stairway, through Believe’s heavy second-floor door, and into rooms where they sat at tables together. The photographs hold a time stamp from May 2010.

On a visit that I took to the office space earlier this month on the last day of summer school, most desks in the mainly open-plan office space were filled with adults sitting at computers. But a sign taped to a door said “Algebra.” I didn’t see any students, but people who work near the building said they saw children discussing their algebra class outside just before I arrived. A student I found outside the building on his way to the subway said the building was used for art classes during the year and summer classes during July and August.

During the school year, photographs taken by a former employee show that a privately chartered bus with the company Orzan Tours shepherded students between the office site on Nassau Ave. and their official school building, P.S. 126 on the other side of the McCarren Park.

Jackie Rivera, Orzan’s office manager, confirmed that the company held a contract with Believe. She said Orzan was hoping to renew the contract.

In a statement, State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn said, “We are aware of the situation at the Believe Charter Schools and will investigate the matter thoroughly. Until that investigation is complete, we cannot provide further comment.”

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.”