breaking news

Live-blogging the City Council education budget hearing

I’m at the City Council and will give updates as they happen.

4:09 p.m. Hearing is over, on a sad, mixed with let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves, note.

4:02 p.m. Another thing being cut is general maintenance. There will also be 71 skilled trades workers who are based centrally and then deployed to help with repairs — plumbers, carpenters, for instance — who will lose their jobs. And Grimm said earlier that the budgets given to custodians based in schools will be reduced by about $4 million this year.

What will that mean? Likely it will mean that some assistants to custodians will lose their jobs, Grimm said. And there’s another thing: the floors. “I always say we have the best floors in New York City; our floors sparkle,” she said. “Maybe they won’t sparkle quite as much.”

3:54 p.m. For such a big-deal kind of hearing, where the DOE is giving more details on planned cuts than ever yet, the room is shockingly empty. Guess that’s what you get for being a watchdog late on a Friday afternoon.

3:50 p.m. The DOE has already alerted principals to the cuts it expects to make during the middle of this year and then next year. But of course, those cuts aren’t real until the City Council approves them. Nevertheless, this hearing keeps sounding like it’s a done deal: Grimm was just explaining that today is the deadline for principals to submit a plan on how they’ll cut their budgets this year; then, we were told, the DOE will review those plans. Finally, Susan Olds, the department’s director of budgeting, said the process will be “complete” in just a few weeks, when the review process is through.

And what about council approval? Grimm cut in with a chuckle: “Of course, the process will not be totally complete until the council votes on the package.”

3:37 p.m. John Liu, of Queens, also asked a question about the federal No Child Left Behind law. Echoing the criticism of Democrats that the law has been an “unfunded mandate,” he asked how much un-funding is happening in New York – in other words, how much isn’t New York getting. “We need to know the number so that we know how much to ask the new president for,” Liu said.

3:27 p.m. Just want to clarify, because even City Council members keep asking: No layoffs at the schools! Teachers at schools stay at the schools, and so do guidance counselors and art teachers and parent coordinators. Only administrative personnel — bureaucrats — are being fired.

3:14 p.m. John Liu of Queens is interrogating Kathleen Grimm on the DOE’s decision not to centralize kindergarten admissions, after all. He asked Grimm how much money was “wasted” moving toward that goal before it was abandoned. “I would guess it’s a least a couple of million dollars, maybe more than that,” he said. Grimm said she would have to look into it.

3:06 p.m. A council member summarized the new “empowerment” budgeting that allows school to pick a support organization to be work with, paying a fee for each organization depending on their preference. The organizations then provide help with professional development and budgeting. The member said he likes that new setup, but wonders whether the empowerment idea could be expanded, so that schools could opt out of paying for support services altogether. “Why not really do it?” he asked, adding that he visited several schools recently that said they would rather spend the money on something else, like a new art teacher. Grimm said that is something the Department of Education is considering.

2:51 p.m. Council Member Lew Fidler said that a neighbor of his replaced all the light bulbs in hise house with energy-efficient ones — and reduced his energy bill 15%. He asked whether the Department of Education could do that in schools. Grimm said the energy budget is $202 million annually for schools and said she’d look into energy-efficient light bulbs.

2:40 p.m. Betsy Gotbaum, the city’s public advocate, stopped in and sparred with Grimm over the report she commissioned from the Independent Budget Office, asking how much accountability initiatives cost. She complained that her office requested the report in February, and it only came this month. She said disagreements with the Department of Education caused the long delay. “You all were arguing with the IBO to such an extent that we felt, I felt, from hearing from them that the things you were arguing about just weren’t making a whole lot of sense, and that you really didn’t want to show us how much money is being spent on accountability,” Gotbaum said.

2:20 p.m. Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor in charge of budgets, is testifying. She broke down the 475 personnel cuts the department has said are coming. From the central offices at Tweed Courthouse, 284 jobs will be cut. She said “every single office” is experiencing a reduction. Not all 284 cuts have been made yet, but she read off a list of sample jobs that have already been identified. I heard her list the Office of Communications three times, meaning at least three jobs cut from there. Also the Office of Portfolio Development, which manages new small schools and charter schools; a few technology office jobs, and at least one from the Office of Family Engagement.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.