jumping the gun

Bloomberg rep lone vote to keep guns in teacher pension fund

The city’s $46.6 billion teacher pension system sold its shares in the firearms industry yesterday, becoming the country’s largest retirement fund to divest from publicly-traded gun manufacturers since December’s elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Comptroller John Liu announced today.

But the vote to do so wasn’t unanimous — and the single dissenting ballot came from a member appointed by the city’s most powerful gun control advocate: Mayor Bloomberg.

Ray Sarola, acting as a fill-in for Bloomberg appointee Carolyn Wolpert, voted against divestment during an executive session meeting last week, a spokesman for the Teacher Retirement System said. Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, of the Department of Education, missed the vote but said yesterday at the board’s monthly public meeting that she opposed divestment as well.

“Pension decisions should rarely, if ever, be based on other criteria except what’s best for pensioners, which should benefit taxpayers as well,” Sarola, a senior policy advisor in the Mayor’s Office of Pensions and Investments, said in a statement provided by Bloomberg spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua. Passalacqua said Bloomberg is recused of pension investment decisions because his own personal investments made it a conflict of interest.

But supporters of divestment pounced on what they saw as an act of hypocrisy.

“I don’t understand it,” said Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, which had its three trustees vote in support of divestment. “This is the guy that’s out there and wants to be the leader on gun control in the country.”

Bloomberg has been an outspoke critic of the gun lobby and has aggressively pursued laws that would restrict the industry’s ability to manufacture high-capacity firearms, such as the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle used in the Newtown shooting. Bloomberg has spent millions of dollars to support candidates for elected office who support gun control, and oppose those who don’t.

Divestment from firearms holdings has become a growing trend among city and state pension systems since 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on Dec. 14. In January, California’s teacher pension fund voted unanimously to begin withdrawing shares from its firearms holdings.

Trustees are legally required to only invest or divest in shares that are in the best interest of the fund’s long-term health. But Liu, who serves as an investment advisor to the fund, said in a statement that the $13.5 million divestment met fiduciary standards.

“There is no need to support these companies, whose products can destroy lives and shatter communities in the blink of an eye,” Liu said in a statement. “Our investment portfolio gains nothing by doing business with these firms, and this is a sound decision that sends an important message about our commitment to addressing the plague of gun violence in every possible way.”

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