bungled evacuation (updated)

Report: Principal foundered for years before being removed

When Maria Penaherrera was removed as principal of Brooklyn’s PS 114 in February 2009, the community breathed a sigh of relief. Her leadership had drawn protests from teachers and parents, and it was well known that the school was in bad shape financially.

But according to a report released today by Special Commissioner of Education Richard Condon, none of those problems caused the city to remove Pena-Herrera. Instead, it was failing to follow proper procedure during an evacuation that cost Pena-Herrera her job.

The report paints a picture of an uncommonly bad principal whose obvious shortcomings went unaddressed by department officials during a period when the city frequently redrew lines of authority over schools.

Pena-Herrera became principal of PS 114 in Brooklyn in 2004 after two decades in the city schools. By the time she was removed, she had amassed a reputation as a “principal from hell” who unsuccessfully tried to bully parents into giving her good marks on the city’s survey. According to the report, she ran up a deficit of more than $100,000, hired and fired four assistant principals, illicitly employed uncertified teachers and paraprofessionals, and paid consultants to replicate support she was already getting. When her replacement inquired about safety issues with a city-funded after-school program that Pena-Herrera had allowed to use school space without a permit, the program’s head offered a bribe of knockoff handbags. A school custodian told investigators that the bribe was typical of the way business was done at the school.

What’s not clear from the report is how Pena-Herrera lasted as long as she did. According to the report, her supervisors saw red flags almost immediately, and in February 2007, two years before Pena-Herrera was removed, city officials convened a meeting to discuss her out-of-control financial practices.

One clue comes from the shifting lines of authority at the Department of Education in recent years. Figuring prominently into the report is Julia Bove, who was the superintendent of PS 114’s district in the 2005-2006 school year. Bove told investigators that she immediately recognized that Pena-Herrera was in over her head. But the following year Bove no longer supervised Pena-Herrera. The year after that, Bove once again worked with PS 114, but she did not have any real authority over Pena-Herrera because she was employed by one of the organizations within the department that competed for contracts with schools. PS 114 paid Bove’s group, the Integrated Learning and Instruction Learning Support Organization, $38,000 for its support, according to the report.

Another clue comes from Bove’s comment to investigators about the city’s priorities for its principals:

Bove reported that the Chancellor’s Office had been ready to remove Penaherrera [sic] during the 2007-2008 school year, but as a result of the massive amount of support provided to Penaherrera, the school’s rating went from an “F” to a “B,” so the Chancellor’s Office left Penaherrera in place.

UPDATE: Department of Education spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz today said the rising progress report grade was “a substantial academic improvement that certainly influenced our decision to allow [Pena-Herrera] to continue on as Principal, albeit with additional support.”

Ravitz said the department is equipped to help principals who struggle. “On occasion, we have talented Principals who struggle to properly manage their budgets and we work — as we did with Principal Penaherrera — to help them stay in line and make appropriate hiring decisions.”

Ravitz said the city would follow the recommendation by Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon to bar Pena-Herrera from working in the the school system. “We were previously aware of some concern about Principal Maria Penaherrera’s budget management skills,” she said. “However, no one in the Chancellor’s office was aware of any allegations or evidence of fraudulent or illegal activity until now.”

SCI report about Maria Pena-Herrera

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”