Meet Tom Allon, who wants to be your next education mayor

The most recent entrant to the 2013 mayoral race is a media publishing executive with no prior experience in government and a promise to run as an independent, business-minded pragmatist on a strong education platform.

But Tom Allon is no circa-2011 Michael Bloomberg, who was similarly green to politics when he became mayor in 2002. Instead, Allon, who operates a network of local newspapers that include politics-heavy City Hall and The Capital, is more of a community media mogul and his education proposals are more of a reaction — for better or worse — to the last nine years of Bloomberg’s leadership.

In an hour-long conversation at his small, cluttered corner office at Manhattan Media, Allon detailed his still-evolving education platform.

“I think Mayor Bloomberg has been an outstanding game-changer in education,” he said. “In the same way that Rudy Giuliani made this a safer city, I think that this mayor has pushed the needle dramatically and made education a priority. And for that he should be applauded.”

Winning mayoral control, lifting the charter school cap, and hiring Joel Klein to lead the city’s school system were among Bloomberg’s best accomplishments, in Allon’s opinion. Maintaining these policies, he said, are crucial to carrying that momentum into the next administration.

“You can’t neglect something and have it wither for 50, 70 years, which is what our public education system has done, and then expect that one man in 10 or 12 years is going to correct all those ills,” Allon said.

And yet Allon wants to roll back Bloomberg’s very first education reform: centralizing the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse, on the same block as City Hall. The centralization has left the DOE detached from the diverse needs of individual schools, according to Allon, who wants to operate the agency across distinct offices in each borough.

“I think there’s way too many people involved in the bureaucracy of our schools and not enough people who are focused on the nuts and bolts of professional developments and helping teachers become better,” he said.

Allon strongly opposes the policy, which the Bloomberg administration has advanced, of placing charter schools in the same buildings as existing district schools. “I think it creates unnecessary tension and unnecessary polarities,” he said. “It creates a sort of upstairs-downstairs sort of feeling.”

Allon knows those tensions well. He helped open Frank McCourt High School, a selective high school that is one of five schools sharing space in the Brandeis Campus on the Upper West Side. That’s the building where charter school operator Eva Moskowitz controversially wants to open one of her schools, Upper West Success, in September.

“I think Eva Moskowitz is a great educator. I just wish there was another way to locate that school,” he said.

Allon’s solution to charter schools’ quest for increasingly scarce school to space is to offer tax breaks to developers, as the city does for affordable housing, to build schools on the bottom floors of new buildings. “I think if we can build newer and better schools, it will take a lot of pressure out of the system where you have overcrowding co-location, classes in the hallways,” he said.

Allon is in part running on the shoulders of the success he’s enjoyed at Manhattan Media, which has grown as other media companies have fallen victim to woeful economic conditions. The company, which now has more than 120 employees, has diversified its business model to include events. One of these is the Blackboard Awards, which annually recognizes the city’s top schools and educators.

Allon says many of his views have been informed by his own experiences. Allon attended private and parochial school until high school, when he enrolled at Stuyvesant High School. He returned to his high school alma mater after graduating from journalism school to teach. “It was by far the hardest job I ever had,” he said of the two years he spend teaching English and journalism.

Allon is critical of high-stakes testing and alternative certification programs that have supplied the city schools with young educators.

“First of all, somebody that goes into education is obviously, in most cases, somebody who’s committed to being a great teacher,” he said. “I think we need to figure out a way to give those people a way to be better teachers and really work with them in the first five years. That’s why I have a little bit of a problem with Teach For America, even though I think it’s a worthy thing. Teaching is a profession, like many professions, that you get better at over time.”

Allon lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and three school-aged children, two of whom attend neighborhood public schools, while the third attends private school.

Without Bloomberg’s billions of dollars, Alon’s greatest challenge in these early stages of campaigning will be catching up in the race to raise money. He will lend himself a portion of the funds to get started, but “I’ve verbally gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars of commitments so far so I am confident that I’m going to get there.”

Winning a slice of the city’s demographically and racially diverse voting blocs, which his competition already have well covered, is another hurdle. Allon understands that he faces an uphill battle to convince people he is for real. Even his own employees called the campaign a “vanity run” and a “long shot at best.”

“My job over the next six months as I get out and speak to potential donors and potential supporters and the media is to convince people that I’m a different, fresh face, that I’m more qualified to lead this city two and a half years from now.”

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.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news