bureau of bureaucracy

How Eva Moskowitz’s growing bureaucracy handled a school-supply fiasco

A panel including, from left, Sheridan Schools Superintendent Mike Clough, Denver Preschool Program CEO Jennifer Landrum, Littleton Public School Superintendent Scott Murphy and State Sen. Mike Johnston couldn't answer, specifically, how the state should move forward after voters rejected an income tax increase to overhaul education funding. Photo by Maura Walz

Days before the start of this school year, principals across New York City faced a nightmare scenario: large portions of their furniture and books were not actually in their schools, but miles away in a warehouse on Long Island. Students might arrive and have no chairs to sit in or books to read.

Worst of all, the disaster was happening at a school system created by Eva Moskowitz, the ambitious school founder who has staked her career on a blistering critique of school systems’ inefficient bureaucracies that harm children’s ability to learn.

In this case, Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools responded swiftly. A team of staffers from the network was dispatched to Long Island to sort the furniture and supplies into boxes destined for the right schools, staff members said, volunteering nights and weekend days to complete the work.

By the first day of school, the Success Academy schools had what they needed. Within weeks, the executive overseeing operations no longer worked at Success.

“We just all pitched in and it got done,” said spokeswoman Ann Powell. “Not all things run as smoothly and perfectly as we would like.”

The incident offers a window into how a school system designed to upend traditional bureaucracy will handle classic logistical challenges as it rapidly expands its footprint in New York City.

Already the largest charter school network in the city, Success’ central offices are growing almost as fast the schools. Today, their 34 schools serve 11,000 students — roughly the number attending district schools in the Lower East Side’s District 1 — and Moskowitz wants to reach 100 schools in a decade.

With that growth has come the trials of running a large school system, like managing huge book deliveries. It also means the network has needed to add more staff to support schools, according to the organization’s tax forms. In 2013, the network employed a total of 575 people, up from 125 just two years earlier.

Powell said that the network had 246 full-time employees as of September and that many people who work there are in internships or work part-time.

“Every year we add more grades,” Powell said. “The support we want to provide to the schools has become a little more elaborate.”

Moskowitz has criticized the district school system for its inefficiencies and inability to quickly fix problems since her days as a city council member representing the Upper East Side. She has been outspoken about her belief that the work rules in union contracts are often to blame, a perspective that has made her an enemy of the United Federation of Teachers, among other groups who object to Moskowitz’s aggressive advocacy tactics.

“It’s her conflictual way of approaching everything,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the New York Times Magazine last year. “It’s, ‘I’m going to show we’re better than public schools.’”

In building Success Academy, which began with a single school in 2006, Moskowitz has sought to develop an organization that is able to nimbly pivot when a certain program isn’t working, a view she described in a LinkedIn post this summer.

“Schools often take the view that if they have a problem, fixing it should wait until the next year,” she wrote. “I don’t believe that. If you waste a year of a kid’s life, the child will never get that time back.”

Just a few days later, that philosophy was put to a test.

Many Success Academy schools put their books and furniture in storage when the school year ends to clear the way for renovations, explained Khari Shabazz, a principal at a Success Academy middle school. But this summer, no one kept track of the inventory after it was boxed up and sent to the warehouse. Officials didn’t realize there was a problem until the school year was about to start.

“I know from how hard they were working there was an urgent situation going on,” Shabazz said. “I don’t know what the warehouse looked like to them, but apparently it was in a state where they had to go in and work around the clock.”

Shabazz, who has worked at Success since 2007, recalls when operations were run out of a single room. As more schools opened, support staff moved into offices in Harlem. Now there are schools in four boroughs and a separate downtown headquarters with a hefty annual rent.

“I’m actually amazed at the level of sophistication needed to do this kind of enterprise,” said Shabazz, who noted that a separate supervisor in his school is responsible for handling operations.

The school supplies episode preceded a larger management shakeup at Success. The network recently added several people to its leadership ranks, including new heads of academics, operations, enrollment, and marketing.

Noel Leeson, ‎the executive vice president in charge of business operations during the inventory crisis, left the network this month after two years. Kris Cheung, a longtime Success director, was promoted to chief operations officer shortly after. Dennis McIntosh, the network’s chief financial officer, who joined Success less than two years ago, also left this month. Attempts to reach Leeson and McIntosh were unsuccessful.

Powell declined to comment on the departures. The new leadership positions were not related to the supply issues, but the network’s growth, she said.

Moskowitz, who was not available for an interview, acknowledged other issues in the LinkedIn post, including curriculum materials that didn’t live up to their promise. Her schools are like Elon Musk’s rockets, she wrote, only with even higher stakes.

“By learning from our mistakes, constantly reassessing, and fixing problems now, not later, we built a culture of success that can persist even when something major – like a rocket – blows up,” she wrote.

Correction: A previous version had the wrong total for the number of schools currently operated by Success. 


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”