memories of a leader

Remembering longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm

Updated — At one of Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s first town hall events last year, very soon after her “beautiful day” comments landed on the cover of the city’s tabloids, she faced a lot of angry questions. Parents were upset about their children’s bus routes, special education services, and (of course) the city’s snow day decisions, and they were all demanding answers.

The response was nothing new for one of those events, of which Fariña has had dozens. But that night, a few parents were especially worked up.

One after another, Fariña told each parent to talk to Kathleen Grimm, the department’s longtime deputy chancellor of operations. Grimm guided each parent to a seat in the front row of the auditorium, where she calmed them, took down their contact information, and promised to try to help. By doing so she let Fariña keep the event upbeat — the chancellor even cracked a “beautiful day” joke — while Grimm dealt with the nitty-gritty concerns.

After Chancellor Fariña announced Wednesday that Grimm had died, just weeks after retiring, Grimm’s colleagues are remembering her for playing that role for the entire school system. By the end of her tenure, she was overseeing school safety, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction, and was admired by education officials who agree on little else.

“The Department of Education has lost a remarkable leader and a champion for all of our students—and I have lost a friend and mentor, whose spirit will continue to guide me personally and professionally,” Fariña said in a statement.

Grimm joined the Department of Education in 2002, one of Chancellor Joel Klein’s original five deputies. Mayor Michael Bloomberg had just assumed control of the city’s schools.

Over the next 12-and-a-half years, Grimm was the public face of the department at contentious City Council hearings, including the memorable hearings on toilet paper held by Eva Moskowitz, then head of the City Council’s education committee.

In her role overseeing construction, the capital budget, and the Blue Book, she faced heavy criticism from parents, advocates, and elected officials who said the city wasn’t doing enough to add seats and decrease class sizes and that the city’s co-location policies were unjust. Repeated changes to bus routes on her watch also angered parents and City Council members.

Before those City Council hearings or meetings with bus drivers unions, Klein told Chalkbeat, “I would say, get your flak jacket. And she smiled and plowed through.”

“What I’m trying to find the words for is the combination of equanimity and devotion,” Klein said. “She was the glue around the place. And she kept the ship steady in some very tumultuous times.”

In a letter to education department employees Wednesday afternoon, Fariña also noted that Grimm made each day memorable with “her impeccable personal demeanor and droll sense of humor.”

“Some of our more casually-dressed colleagues will recall being exhorted to grab a tie from the collection she kept under her desk,” Fariña said in the letter. “Kathleen had high standards for everybody, including herself.”

Here’s some of what her colleagues are remembering about Grimm. 

Veronica Conforme, the department’s chief financial officer from Dec. 2010 to Oct. 2011 and its chief operating officer until 2013, said that Grimm encouraged other women to assume leadership roles. Grimm’s own work put her in close contact with custodians, construction, bus drivers — not professions known for female authority figures.

“Having a role model as a woman in an organization where often times you don’t see a woman in charge, she was very tough. She was very cognizant of mentoring other women,” Conforme said. “She was extremely strong and had really high standards of what needed to be accomplished in city government.”

But Grimm stayed out of the education policy debates that polarized the city during the Bloomberg years. When it came to providing services, “People wouldn’t overstep their bounds there because they knew that was her charge. But she didn’t have any particular perspective.”

Former Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said Grimm was a willing mentor when he made the jump from a school principal to the Department of Education’s complex bureaucracy.

“Literally, she took me by the hand as a new deputy chancellor and guided me,” Sternberg said.

As head of the portfolio office that oversaw use of the city’s 1,200 school buildings and opened and closed schools, Sternberg worked closely with Grimm, who was particularly adept at handling sensitive issues.

“You wanted Kathleen in the foxhole with you,” he said. “She could not be rattled.”

But for someone who lasted so long in the Bloomberg administration and then continued as a top official under de Blasio, Grimm was always a “truth-teller,” Sternberg said. “She was never afraid to speak truth to whatever power she was sitting with, whether it was the union, the mayor, or advocates.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña:

“Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm was one of the most loyal and devoted public servants I have ever met,” Fariña said in a statement. “She understood the meaning of service to our schools and City, and inspired passion and loyalty from all those who worked alongside her. Thanks to her dedication and leadership, our school facilities are now stronger than they’ve ever been. I will dearly miss Kathleen and the class, grace, and vision with which she served everyone around her and the people of New York. I know that the work she so loved doing will lift our students and schools for years to come.”

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg:

“Kathleen Grimm positively affected the lives of a generation of students. She was deeply dedicated to her work, and we relied upon her to spearhead many of our most difficult reform efforts. Smart and demanding, she was never afraid to speak her mind – and always willing to stand up for our students. She made everyone around her better, and she made our schools better, too. On behalf of so many people in our administration who deeply respected her and benefited from her leadership, I extend my heartfelt condolences to her family.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio:

AFT President Randi Weingarten:

Former department spokesman Devon Puglia:

City Councilman Chaim Deutsch:

Feel free to leave other memories in the comments, or email Community Editor Stephanie Snyder.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.