filling in the blanks

Arbitrator: City used "circular reasoning" to justify turnarounds

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s testimony before an arbitrator drove one nail into the coffin of the city’s plans to replace or rehire teachers at 24 “turnaround” schools.

Last week an arbitrator determined that the city violated the city’s contracts with the teachers and principals unions when it moved to replace staff members at the schools. This afternoon the arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released a detailed explanation of why he ruled the way he did.

The city was trying to use hiring procedures set for closing schools and their replacements. But the unions argued that the turnaround plans were “sham closures” that would not result in new schools. Instead, they argued, the city was unfairly using contractual provisions about “excessing” to remove teachers and administrators it deemed unsatisfactory.

In upholding the unions’ grievance, Buchheit at times turns Bloomberg’s and other city officials’ words against them.

He quotes a 2011 memorandum written by the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, which said, “excessing is not a permissible way to deal with unsatisfactory teachers.”

Yet city officials said they intended to do just that from the start of the turnaround process, Buchheit determined.

When he first announced the turnaround plans during his State of the City Address in January, Bloomberg “repeatedly made clear that the DOE’s new plan concerning the 24 (then 33) schools was based upon the desire to change staffing in the classroom,” Buchheit writes. He quotes Bloomberg saying, “Under this process, the best teachers stay; the least effective go.”

The arbitrator notes that Bloomberg has frequently expressed his distaste for the current process for shedding teachers from schools that are contracting, which is based on seniority, not job performance. “Suffice it to say that at the arbitration hearing the Mayor reaffirmed his dislike,” Buchheit writes.

Buchheit emphasized that he was not passing judgment on the value of the city’s plans for the schools, which State Education Commissioner John King approved in late June. And he said nothing in his decision would prevent the city from continuing with portions of the plans that do not involve using the hiring rules that take effect when schools are closed.

Those rules, outlined in a clause in the teachers union contract known as 18D, call for closing schools to set up hiring committees to review current teachers who apply for jobs at the replacement schools. According to 18D, the committees must hire back at least half of them of the qualified applicants from each school. City officials and school administrators began carrying out 18D procedures in the 24 schools last month with the understanding that the arbitrator could ultimately reverse it.

Department of Education officials had said they were confident that King’s approval of the reform plans would prove that the 24 schools were truly being closed. But Buchheit said King’s decision did not necessarily mean the schools were being closed and replaced with new schools. “New,” he said, typically means “never existing before,” which would not be the case for the 24 schools.

“The evidence here establishes that much would remain the same in the 24 new schools,” he wrote, including the schools’ buildings, student populations, courses, partnering organizations, and, for 18 of them, their principals. He also noted that many of the schools’ new names would still contain the old names, such as August Martin High School, which would change to “The School of Opportunities at the August Martin Campus.”

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg also suggested that the school closings were inauthentic, the arbitrator concludes, when he wrote in a memorandum to principals shortly after Bloomberg’s speech explaining that their schools would be closed “as a technical matter.”

For the schools to be truly new, Buchheit says, much would have to change, including their overall educational visions and leadership. Instead, the biggest change the city cited was the planned staffing change — but that change could only happen, he notes, if the schools were new.

“The DOE cannot use the end result of Article 18D being invoked as justification for why it is permitted to invoke 18D,” Buchheit writes. “I cannot adopt this circular reasoning for the purposes of contract interpretation.”

On Monday, Bloomberg said the city would appeal Buchheit’s ruling because the arbitrator had not yet explained his rationale. But after reading the opinion, city attorney Georgia Pestana said the city will not withdraw its appeal, which it filed in State Supreme Court on Monday. “The arbitrator clearly exceeded his authority,” she said.

The city had argued that the unions’ grievances were not arbitrable at all. In his opinion, Buchheit rejects each of the city’s three arguments for why the grievance should not be subject to binding arbitration.

Buchheit’s full decision is below:

Student activist

With Townsend Harris in turmoil over interim principal, one student quietly takes a leading role

PHOTO: The Classic
Alex Chen walks the hallway during a student sit-in he helped organize at Townsend Harris High School.

While students across the nation have taken to the streets to protest President Trump, some are fighting battles closer to home. Just ask Alex Chen, the student union president at Townsend Harris High School who is helping to lead a high-profile fight against Interim Acting Principal Rosemarie Jahoda.

Chen spent much of his February break rallying fellow students, alumni and parents from the elite Queens high school to demonstrate in front of City Hall on Friday, asking the city to remove Jahoda from consideration for the permanent post. The controversy has put the 17-year-old in the uncomfortable position of going against his school’s top official.

But Chen insists this isn’t a student vs. principal situation.

“It might have felt like that sometimes, but I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as a community that’s rising up,” he said.

Opposition has mounted against Jahoda since September, when she stepped in to lead the school. More than 3,500 people, including self-identified parents and alumni, have signed a petition against her, claiming that she has harassed faculty, changed course offerings without proper input and that she has been “aloof or even combative” toward students.

In a statement, Jahoda said: “While I am frustrated by many of these inaccurate allegations, I remain 100% focused on serving students and families at Townsend Harris and working to move the school community forward.”

Meanwhile, Chen has been thrust into the spotlight. In December, during a student sit-in he helped organize, he had a tense standoff with Deputy Superintendent Leticia Pineiro.

“How are your teachers being harassed? I’m curious,” the superintendent quipped to Chen in a livestream broadcast by the student newspaper. “You’re speaking and I believe people should speak from fact. I’m a factual person.”

Chen spoke slowly, his voice a near whisper. Even when the superintendent suggested Chen had invaded her personal space, Chen stayed quiet and calm.

“I really just wanted to be able to communicate with her,” he later told Chalkbeat.

He returned to class, replaying the scene in his head and wondering whether he had handled it right. When he walked in the door, his classmates burst into applause.

“He’s become this symbol for everyone involved. And I think he earned it,” said Brian Sweeney, an English teacher and newspaper advisor who has Chen in his journalism class. “When you’re in that video with everyone watching, and you’re willing to keep talking and keep saying what you think … there’s a lot of trust for everyone involved.”

Since the sit-in, the School Leadership Team at Townsend took the unusual step of making Chen a co-chair of the board, made up of teachers, parents and union reps.

“I believe it was a matter of trust and productivity. We needed co-chairs who could move forward with the issues at the table, rather than be stuck in tension,” Chen said.

Even while he fights to make sure Jahoda isn’t appointed permanently, Chen said he has maintained a “very professional relationship” with her. In SLT and student union meetings where Jahoda is present, Chen said he makes an effort to “stick to the agenda.”

“We still have to keep the school running,” he said. “In the hallways, I’ll say good morning. I’ll say hello. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

The Department of Education opened applications for a permanent principal on Feb. 1 and said the process takes up to 90 days. The pushback against Jahoda means many are watching the department’s next moves. This week, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz wrote a letter to Chancellor Carmen Fariña about the matter.

“Accusations and troubling accounts are occurring on a daily basis,” she wrote. “The students of our system deserve to know that the DOE is providing the tools, atmosphere and attention needed to fulfill our responsibilities to them.”

Chen has responsibilities of his own. At home in Hollis Hills, he helps take care of his younger sister and is expected to finish his chores. He’s looking for a job to have a bit of his own money. And with senior year winding down, he spends a lot of time chasing scholarships. Chen hopes to study business at University of Pennsylvania, though lately many people have asked him whether he’ll go into politics.

“I don’t think I will for now, because there’s a lot that goes on in politics that kind of disturbs me,” he said. “After high school, after college, after your youth, it seems like people [tend] to be more self-interested than to help in the community.”

under study

No longer at the bottom: These 20 schools are Tennessee’s model for turnaround

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Whitehaven Elementary School students work on a robotics project. The Memphis school has moved off of the state's list of lowest-performing schools.

When Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment this week of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, she cited a small number of schools as the exception.

Twenty have improved enough in the last five years to move off of the state’s list of “priority schools” that are in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent.

Of those, the State Department of Education has conducted case studies of 10 former priority schools in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and Hardeman County:

  • Chickasaw Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Douglass K-8, Shelby County Schools
  • Ford Road Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Gra-Mar Middle, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Hamilton Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Treadwell Middle, Shelby County Schools
  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Schools
  • Whiteville Elementary, Hardeman County Schools
  • City University Boys Preparatory High, Shelby County Schools
  • Springdale Elementary, Shelby County Schools

The first six are part of state-supported innovation zones in Memphis and Nashville. Two schools — in Chattanooga and Hardeman County — have received federal school improvement grants. The last two did not receive federal or state interventions but were studied because their scores improved at a faster rate than 85 percent of schools in 2015.

Ten other former priority schools, all in Shelby County Schools in Memphis, have improved with only local or philanthropic support. The state plans to examine these closer in the coming months:

  • Alcy Elementary
  • Cherokee Elementary, Innovation Zone
  • Hickory Ridge Middle
  • Manassas High
  • Manor Lake Elementary
  • Memphis Academy of Science & Engineering High (charter school)
  • Memphis School of Excellence High (charter school)
  • Oakhaven Middle
  • South Park Elementary
  • Whitehaven Elementary
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A classroom at Ford Road Elementary in Memphis, which is among those that have exited the state’s list of lowest performing schools.

McQueen told lawmakers Tuesday that it’s “a little embarrassing” that only 16 percent of priority schools have moved off of the state’s 2012 and 2014 lists that identify 126 failing schools.

The case studies, in part, have informed the school improvement component of Tennessee’s new plan for its schools under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

“… We have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools,” McQueen said in a statement Wednesday.

Tennessee’s proposed new plan for turnaround work would gives more authority to local districts to make their own improvements before the state-run Achievement School District steps in.

One ASD school — Brick Church in Nashville — also has moved off of the state’s priority list, but was excluded from the state’s analysis because there were not enough years of test data to compare since its takeover by the state-run district.

“What we can’t do as a state is support — in terms of funding and time — district interventions that don’t work,” McQueen said. “We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need.”

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.