UFT lawsuit pushes back on education department redactions

A page from a batch of Department of Education emails released in June was almost completely redacted when it was released in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. The UFT is suing over the scope of the department's redactions.

The city teachers union wants the Department of Education to justify withholding large swaths of information in emails it released to the union earlier this year.

The UFT announced today that it is filing a lawsuit charging that the department redacted more than it should have when it fulfilled a union request for internal emails earlier this year.

The emails were the target of a May 2010 Freedom of Information Law request by the UFT. The union wanted to see the communication exchanged between top department officials and charter school supporters in late 2009 and early 2010, a period when legislators were under pressure to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

The department did not quickly release the emails, saying that the request was too broad when it deferred the request each month. In April, two years after first asking for the emails, the union filed suit over the delay, and shortly after that, the department started releasing the emails in sections.

The emails shed some light on the department’s internal communications and showed that then-Chancellor Joel Klein kept close tabs on legislative advocacy around charter schools. But to a significant extent, they revealed nothing.

“The latest internal Department of Education emails to come to light are mostly dark: The 228 pages released today contain large swaths of blacked-out text,” we wrote in June, when the city released hundreds of messages from December 2009. Some pages contained only a black box, with every single word redacted. Other pages showed only small portions of messages, while others showed the emails that Klein had received but obscured his answers.

The state’s Freedom of Information Law allows public entities to withhold some kinds of information when it is requested, including information about collective bargaining, details that would violate public officials’ personal privacy, and some kinds of intra-agency communications.

But the union’s lawsuit charges that many, if not all, of the department’s redactions did not fall into protected categories. At the very least, the union says, the city should be forced to produce an itemized accounting of why it blacked out each of the emails it redacted.

The redactions were particularly galling to union officials coming as they did just months after the department responded very differently to another FOIL request — for individual teachers’ ratings, filed by several news organizations. In that case, as soon as a court cleared the way for the ratings’ release, the department handed them over to the news organizations, many of which published each teacher’s name and score.

“At the Department of Education, information is rarely free, particularly when important issues are involved,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today in a statement. “Like dozens of other organizations, from parent groups to the city’s media, the UFT has struggled to get the DOE to live up to its obligations to make public information public, and we have asked the courts to intervene.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Corporation Council said the city had not yet received the legal papers this afternoon. But she said city lawyers are confident that the redactions are all legal.

“The Department of Education has spent a great deal of time on the UFT’s voluminous request,” said the spokeswoman, Kate Ahlers, in a statement. “DOE gathered well over ten thousand e-mails and individually reviewed each one. We believe the redactions made were entirely lawful and appropriate.”

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.

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.”