Open Up

Appeals court unanimously orders New York City to open school leadership meetings to the public

Public Advocate Letitia James (center) and parent advocate Leonie Haimson (right), seen here in 2013, joined a lawsuit to make school leadership team meetings open to the public.

For the second time in two years, a court has ordered the city to open school leadership meetings to the public. And for the second time, it’s not clear if the city will actually open them.

The ruling, which became public Tuesday, upheld a Manhattan Supreme Court judge’s decision that meetings of the joint parent-educator School Leadership Teams should be open to the public.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for parents, students, educators and all of us who believe in transparency and accountability at the Department of Education,” wrote Public Advocate Letitia James, who joined a retired Manhattan teacher’s lawsuit alongside the advocacy group Class Size Matters. “Important decisions about our schools must be made in sunlight with input from parents and teachers.”

Under state law, every school must have a leadership team that includes the principal, parent association president, teachers union representative, and an equal number of elected parents and staff members. The teams are charged with creating annual comprehensive education plans, and must be consulted on certain key decisions, including hiring principals and assistant principals, and moving other schools into their buildings.

At issue is whether the leadership teams (SLTs) are simply offering advice, or play a role in actually governing schools. In a unanimous ruling from a four-judge panel, which reviewed the city’s appeal, the court found that, “It cannot be disputed that SLTs are established pursuant to state law and are a part of DOE’s ‘governance structure.’

“It also cannot be disputed that SLTs have decision-making authority to set educational and academic goals for a school through the [comprehensive education plan],” the opinion continued.

It was not immediately clear if the city plans to appeal the decision. The city’s education department declined to comment, referring all questions to the law department.

“The state legislature never intended to mandate that SLT meetings be open to the general public. We are considering our options,” wrote law department spokesman Nick Paolucci.

In the meantime, the court order requires the city to open school leadership meetings to the public immediately, and must offer public notice in line with open meetings laws, according to Anna Brower, a spokeswoman for the public advocate.

The city has balked at opening the meetings in the past. When a court ruled against the city in April 2015, it got a stay on the ruling and Chancellor Carmen Fariña instructed principals to keep the meetings closed while the case made its way through the appeals process.

This is not the first time the city has faced litigation over SLT meetings. In 2013, a Staten Island teacher sued after he was barred from a meeting at his school — a case the city won.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of a judge’s previous ruling on this lawsuit. It’s April 2015, not last April.

talking it out

At NAACP hearing on charter school moratorium, foes and fans find common ground

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Nyla Jenkins, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School

When the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last fall, the group’s president and CEO Cornell Brooks said the group wanted a “reasoned pause,” not a “doomsday destruction” of charters.

Still, it ignited a firestorm among charter school supporters and sparked a series of hearings nationwide, the last of which was held Thursday in New York City. But rather than a heated debate, the panelists and public speakers took pains to find common ground.

“We cannot have a situation where schools are pitted against each other,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told the packed auditorium at Harlem Hospital Center.

Many panelists said the problem wasn’t school choice, but the fact that too many parents felt compelled to seek alternatives to struggling district schools.

“If you go into communities where education is working, you don’t see people scrambling around, trying to figure out what school to put their child in,” said Lester Young, a member of the state Board of Regents. “We have communities in New York City right now where parents say there is not one middle school I can place my child in. Now, that’s the issue.”

Still, many of the speakers also acknowledged problems with charter schools, particularly in states where the laws governing them are more lax than they are in New York.

“We want to make sure that those schools are going to accept students that have special needs,” said Rebecca Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association. “We want to make sure that we do not create separate systems that are unequal.”

The charter school advocates on the panel seemed to agree that some charters weren’t working. They were quick to denounce for-profit charters, for instance. “For-profit operators have no business in education,” said Katie Duffy, CEO of Democracy Prep Charter School. Our children “are not assets and liabilities and they shouldn’t be treated as such.”

Rafiq Kalam id-Din II, who founded a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, spoke about the need for more schools like his, founded and staffed by black and Hispanic community members. Without naming names, he called out charter schools that believe “if you don’t sit a certain way, you can’t learn” or are using suspension as a “first response” rather than a last resort.

“Criminalizing the behavior of our children — there should be a moratorium on that,” he said.

But it was Nyla Jenkins, 7, a first-grader at KIPP STAR Harlem College Prep Charter School, who drew the most applause of the night when she took the microphone and declared herself a junior lifetime member of the NAACP. “Let’s find a solution for all of us,” she said.

Building Better Schools

IPS broke its own rules to work with a for-profit charter operator. Now it’s having second thoughts.

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Donnan Middle School was taken over by the state and handed off to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2012. The school now includes an elementary school in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools.

An unusual partnership between a for-profit charter operator and Indianapolis Public Schools could be on the rocks.

That’s because during its first year of operation, Emma Donnan Elementary School students had some of the lowest test scores in the district and did not make significant gains from the prior year — landing it on the shortlist for district intervention.

If scores are not good this year or in 2018, the district might terminate its contract with Charter Schools USA to operate Donnan, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

“They struggled in last year’s performance,” he said. “They did not perform at our standard.”

Florida-based CSUSA began managing three Indianapolis schools, including Emma Donnan Middle School, after the schools were taken over by the Indiana State Board of Education six years ago. In 2015, they opened Donnan Elementary as an IPS innovation school in the same building as the middle school. The district is responsible for the school’s — so far low — test scores, but the staff are employed by the charter operator, which handles daily operations.

IPS suspended a policy against working with for-profit operators when it agreed to work with CSUSA to launch Donnan Elementary. The move was intended to give the district more involvement in a building that otherwise would be state-controlled and give CSUSA a chance to work with students earlier. Middle schoolers at Donnan often enroll far behind grade level.

Eric Lewis, a senior official with CSUSA, said the organization is “thrilled to be in partnership” with IPS, and he is not concerned about pressure from the district to improve test scores because “we always intend to improve.”

CSUSA operates 77 schools across the country, many of which also have struggled academically. In the six years since Indiana handed management of three IPS schools over to the charter-manager, those schools have not shown significant improvement.

In recent years, CSUSA has appeared poised to expand in Indiana, but earlier this week the Indiana Charter School Board canceled charters for two schools that were expected to be managed by CSUSA because the company had stopped communicating about its plans.

IPS board members have been skeptical of Donnan Elementary’s progress in the past, but they were relatively quiet during a presentation from CSUSA at their meeting Thursday. (Innovation schools must present their progress to their board twice a year.)

Board member Diane Arnold said the report, which included information on enrollment and scores on tests used to track student progress throughout the year, showed more improvement than the last report school leaders presented to the board.

She is cautiously optimistic Donnan will improve with support.

“We kind of pushed the envelope to give them the elementary school,” she said. “My expectation is we should see results. … And I am hopeful.”

But it’s unclear what help the school will get from the district to improve test scores. Lewis said he did not “have any sense” of what resources the district could provide the school through its new intervention process, but “we look forward to partnering with them.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan said she was concerned that Donnan appeared on the list of low-performing schools, and she is relying on the staff overseeing innovation schools to track its progress.

“When we have partners … their purpose is to improve student achievement, and (if) that doesn’t happen, then yes, we will absolutely intervene in those schools,” she said. “We are going to be looking for accountability.”