when the iron is hot

At bus driver strike hearing, Walcott bats away council criticism

Chancellor Dennis Walcott takes questions from Robert Jackson during a City Council hearing on the school bus strike.

Agitated City Council members spent more than two hours today grilling Chancellor Dennis Walcott about the city’s refusal to restore job protections for school bus drivers or intervene in their nearly monthlong strike.

The hearing took place more than three weeks into the strike on a day when many families’ tenuous transportation plans were complicated by the start of a snowstorm. Attendance in schools for students with disabilities, which have been hardest-hit by the strike, fell from 76 percent on Thursday to just 50 percent today.

Maria Uruchima, whose nightmarish commute includes 8 buses and 4 trains, said her son wasn’t feeling well, “so I just kept him home because it’s going to be crazy out anyways.”

Even before the inclement weather, at least 2,500 students who attend schools in District 75, which serve special education students with the highest needs, “were still home,” Maggie Moroff, Special Education Policy Coordinator at Advocates for Children, said in her prepared remarks. For students that made it to school, Moroff said parents sacrificed hours of their work days to get them there and many students arrived late anyway. 

The plight of students and families came up occasionally, but the hearing centered more on the ongoing labor dispute between Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, the city and the School Bus Coalition, which was absent. The stated purpose of the hearing was “the costs of student transportation,” but that got short shrift as well.

In his testimony, Walcott didn’t say much about transportation costs that the city faced, something that irked council officials who organized the hearing. The one dollar figure that Walcott did cite was the $95 million that the city expected to save from new five-year contracts for prekindergarten busing. Those contracts did not include seniority protections for bus drivers.

School transportation will cost the city $1.1 billion this year, according to the Comptroller’s office, and increase to $1.3 billion by 2014, according to the council, which had asked the education department to come with a prepared breakdown of how that money was spent.

The costs were relevant, Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson said in his opening remarks, because the city has often cited the high costs of bus transportation for why it needs to seek new and cheaper contracts.

“We’ve all read and heard lots of heated rhetoric and half-truths, claims and counterclaims about the cost of busing in New York City, and now it’s time for a reality check,” Jackson said. More than half of that amount is reimbursed by the state, a fact that Jackson said was not mentioned by Mayor Bloomberg during his many press conferences on the issue.

Later in the questioning, officials confirmed some the per-pupil cost breakdowns. Eric Goldstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Office of School Support Services said the city spent an average of $6,900 per pupil on transportation —   $2800 on general education students and $12,800 on students with special needs.

Jackson led the charge of criticism of Walcott. He accused Walcott of misleading the council on the city’s true intentions behind the labor conflict, suggesting he was either ignorant of the issues facing students, families and bus drivers in the strike, or he’s more nefarious than that.

“You’re like an ostrich with his head in the sand not willing to come out and deal with reality,” said Jackson, nearing the end of Walcott’s lengthy testimony, which once escalated into a tense exchange with a confrontational council member.

“I don’t know whether or not it’s about money, chancellor,” Jackson added. “I’m wondering whether or not this is about the Bloomberg Administration willing to attempt to try to break the back of the union.”

In response, the overflow room about 20 feet down the hallway, packed mostly with striking bus drivers, erupted in applause.

Walcott disputed the claim, saying that the city was getting rid of seniority-based job protections for its upcoming contract bidding process because they were legally obligated and to save money.

“We are not trying to break the union, as I’ve said over and over again,” Walcott said. “The union will still be in place even with the new bids.”

Walcott was defensive but remained even-tempered for most the of hearing. The exception came in response to questioning from Councilwoman Letitia James, a candidate for Public Advocate who repeatedly asked — and interrupted to answer herself — Walcott about the city’s interpretation of a 2011 court decision that he said justifies withholding job protections.

“You can come to the panel meetings and act out,” Walcott said, referring to the contentious Panel for Educational Policy meetings. “I’m not going to take it here.”

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.”