beating the rap

Ex-TAPCO principal back on city payroll after arbitrator's ruling

A disgraced former principal whose academic fraud drew personal condemnation from Chancellor Dennis Walcott is picking up city paychecks again after successfully escaping the city’s efforts to fire her.

The Department of Education moved to fire Lynn Passarella after an investigation found that she fudged academic records, misused funds, and falsified student transcripts as principal at Theatre Arts Production Company middle and high school.

But more than a year after charges were filed, an arbitrator ruled that termination was an “excessive” penalty — even though he agreed that Passarella, a 17-year tenured employee of the school system, had indeed committed much of the misconduct that investigators found and should not be allowed to lead a school.

In her defense, Passarella argued that she was set up to fail by an accountability system installed under the Bloomberg administration.

The case spotlights an issue that has long frustrated department officials, who argue that labor laws protect school employees from being fired for even the most egregious misconduct. While much of the scrutiny has focused on a small number of teachers accused of sexually inappropriate behavior who remain on the city’s payroll, the Passarella case shows that the legal process also affects educators found to have misbehaved in other ways.

“I find it unacceptable that an arbitrator would overrule us, but again that’s the way the law is designed and it shouldn’t be that way,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today, shortly after learning of the decision. Walcott has lobbied state legislators to give the chancellor the power to fire school employees accused of sexual misconduct only.

A report of the city’s probe into TAPCO was released in March 2012 and marked the close of a tumultuous era for the South Bronx school under Passarella, who opened the school in 1999. The school received high praise for overcoming long odds en route to earning 90 percent graduation rates and a top score on the city’s progress reports. The school’s marks earned Passarella $40,000 in bonuses through the Bloomberg administration’s performance pay program.

But the investigation challenged the school’s success story. Students received class credits regardless of their work, attendance sheets were tampered with, and an erasure analysis of state tests revealed that a high rate of answers were changed from incorrect to correct, investigators found.

Walcott was so disturbed by the findings that he stripped Passarella of her pay and, in unusually strong words, publicly pledged to seek her termination.

“The behavior uncovered in this report is dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities,” Walcott said at the time.

But the city’s efforts to fire Passarella were unsuccessful. The arbitrator, a neutral hearing officer assigned to review the legal case, determined in June that Passarella should remain on the department’s payroll at her old salary of $145,493, although he ruled that the department was justified in removing her from her position at TAPCO.

“[Passarella] still has a great deal to offer the NYC DOE, albeit not in the position of school principal,” the arbitrator, Joel Douglas, wrote in his ruling. He even cited TAPCO’s city scores and Passarella’s performance bonuses, both based on the fraudulent data, as evidence of a past record of success that should not be overlooked.

A spokeswoman for the Council School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals union representing Passarella, defended the decision.

“When a neutral arbitrator heard all of the allegations, he felt that a dismissal was unwarranted,” the spokeswoman said. “We agree with his decision.”

City officials said Passarella is currently a member of the “Absent Teacher Reserve,” the pool of educators who do not have permanent positions, and is working on finding a job within the department. She works in a Bronx office where her former school’s network is housed.

Several calls and messages to the phone number for Passarella’s office were not returned. But according to testimony provided in the arbitrator’s report, Passarella said that she quickly got in over her head at TAPCO, which opened as a middle school and expanded to include a high school.

She also argued that she was “the first victim of the principal empowerment theory,” according to the arbitrator’s report, a reference to the accountability model developed by Chancellor Joel Klein that gave administrators more power over how their schools are run in exchange for greater academic accountability. Passarella’s interpretation of this model was that “a principal should have virtual free rein in attempting to meet school objectives,” the report says.

“I didn’t avail myself to the nuts and bolts of the organizational pieces of running the school,” she told the arbitrator. “That was an oversight.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.