How a few school-support groups created under Bloomberg survived Fariña’s overhaul

Chancellor Carmen Fariña unveiled a sweeping redesign of the school system last month, replacing the Bloomberg-era support teams that had helped principals manage their schools with powerful superintendents and borough offices.

She did, however, allow one vestige of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s system to persist: the handful of support teams run by nonprofits and universities, which she said could still work with schools in a limited way.

But, as the dust settles, it appears that some of those groups could fare much better than others. While certain ones will work with far fewer schools and in a much narrower capacity than they did before, others could keep most of their schools and support functions, according to interviews with people at the privately run groups, known as as “partnership support organizations,” or PSOs.

The group most people point to as the likely winner in the reorganization is New Visions for Public Schools, a large PSO overseeing about 80 schools with a high-powered board of trustees who descended on City Hall before the restructuring was announced. The schools in that group and a few others will be overseen by their own superintendents even though they are spread across the city — a contrast to the rest of the chancellor’s new system, which is built around geographic districts.

While the new arrangements are still being finalized, supporters point out that groups like New Visions have deep experience helping run schools and that many principals are eager to keep their PSOs. But experts say that could complicate Fariña’s new power structure, which was meant to remove a layer separating the chancellor from schools and create consistency across districts. Some suspect that letting a group like New Visions retain such influence was not Fariña’s first choice, but a concession to politics.

“It does seem to be a little bit at odds with the chancellor’s desire to have very clear hierarchal authority lines,” said Aaron Pallas, a Teachers College professor who the department consulted as it planned the reorganization. “It may be a bit of political compromise that everyone had to live with.”

Fearing change, a PSO pushes back

Bloomberg and his long-serving schools chief, Joel Klein, launched the partnership program in 2007 as part of their push to let schools choose the type of support they received. Nonprofit groups such as New Visions and the Urban Assembly — which had also opened new schools — joined the program, as did universities such as CUNY and Fordham.

Schools paid the groups up to $60,000 or so each year for their services, which include everything from help with hiring and budgeting to teacher training and data analysis. A few years later, the administration created the current school-support networks that provided similar services but were staffed by city employees.

Early last year, Fariña dispatched a team to study Bloomberg’s school-support system and propose ways to improve it. While the team was still working, Fariña retrained and gave new authority to the district superintendents, whose role had been diminished under Bloomberg.

By the fall, superintendents were showing up regularly at schools, weighing in on instructional matters, and hosting training sessions — activities that, until then, had been handled by the networks and PSOs. As Fariña’s restructuring announcement drew near, many of those groups became convinced that she planned to cut them out of the system.

At that point, New Visions sprang into action.

Some of its board members met with First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris to argue that the group should continue to support its schools under the new structure, according to sources. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat shares a board member with New Visions.) The group’s founder, corporate lawyer Richard Beattie, emailed the mayor directly.

Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions for Public Schools, is in talks with the city about the role his school-support group will play under the new system.

The New Visions board has strong ties to City Hall. Its co-chairman, Roger Altman, is an investment banker who co-hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio in 2013 and later joined his pre-kindergarten campaign committee. Its president, Robert Hughes, was appointed to a joint City Hall-education department advisory group last year. (Richard Kahan, the head of Urban Assembly, also was on that task force.)

“It would have been a political nightmare for the mayor to pull the plug” on New Visions, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY Grad Center and Brooklyn College, who has called for more scrutiny of the PSOs.

Altman’s office did not respond to a request for comment about New Visions’ advocacy efforts, while Beattie referred requests to Hughes. Hughes did not address the board’s efforts, but said he has had conversations with Fariña about New Visions’ “strengths, challenges and potential partnership roles going forward.”

“I have no way of knowing their impact internally on her or anyone else in the administration,” he said in an email. “And while they are continuing, they have been productive and we are moving in a good direction.”

PSOs downsized to “affinity groups”

When Fariña finally made her announcement last month ending the networks, she said that groups like New Visions, Urban Assembly, and CUNY would remain “valued partners.” But now, the former PSOs would be called “affinity groups” and would provide a narrower range of services while receiving closer supervision by the education department.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña with her chief strategy officer, Josh Wallack, who led a review of the city’s school-support structure last year.

“They will be brought under a superintendent,” she said, “and they will be held accountable for results – just like everyone else.”

Fariña had already met individually with the leaders of each of the half-dozen or so PSOs in the days before the speech, according to people with knowledge of the meetings. She asked them to submit “concept papers” describing how they could offer schools whatever particular support she considered each group’s specialty — mostly training services, like helping teachers work with English learners or foster students’ emotional development, the people said.

“It was not an open-ended invitation,” said Patrick Montesano, director of US education programs for FHI 360, a PSO serving 21 schools.

Some of those groups are still waiting to hear back weeks after submitting papers, but several said it is clear that they will go from helping manage every aspect of their schools to coaching staffers on very specific topics. Some, including Fordham, said they expect to partner with fewer schools than they do now. In fact, the largest PSO — a group known as CEI-PEA, which has a long history working with New York City schools — will go from serving over 200 schools as a PSO to just 25 as an affinity group, according to sources.

Some of the groups, such as Fordham and FHI 360, said they welcomed the new opportunity, adding that it returned the PSOs to their original focus on instruction rather than schools’ operations or compliance with city rules. But others complained about a lack of transparency as the department makes decisions about the role each group will play, which will involve many schools and contracts worth thousands of dollars.

“They have made some decisions based on criteria that we don’t fully understand,” said one PSO leader who asked for anonymity while negotiations continue.

Officials did not share the full set of criteria for those decisions, but said one consideration was the performance of each group’s schools.

Different deals raise questions

As it turns out, not all affinity groups are created equal.

Even as some of the PSOs are being invited to become narrowly defined affinity groups with fewer schools, others are negotiating to keep all of their schools and to play a substantial role supporting them.

New Visions, for one, is trying to keep all 80 of its schools and support them in key areas, including math and literacy instruction, data analysis, preparing students for college, and catching up students who are behind, sources said. (It does not expect to continue helping its schools with back-office operations.) Urban Assembly is also angling to keep most of its 23 schools, a significant role in supporting them, and roughly the same budget, according to sources.

“There are going to be changes in our relationship with D.O.E., which I think are positive,” Urban Assembly’s Richard Kahan said in a city press release about the school system restructuring, which also quoted Robert Hughes. “But we stay together as a network, our principals stay together, we stay together as a team with our principals.”

Those schools have also been promised dedicated superintendents (two for New Visions, and one that Urban Assembly will share with another group), who will oversee all their schools even though they are spread across several districts. That is a boon for the groups, since the superintendents rating their schools and principals will now have a deep understanding of each group’s approach.

While that arrangement benefits the two well-connected groups, it is likely as much a factor of their focus on high schools as it is their political clout. State law dictates that elementary and middle schools be grouped in geographic districts overseen by superintendents, but high schools are not bound by those rules — freeing the city to organize them by affiliation.

In fact, the city is in the process of putting several other coalitions of like-minded high schools spread across the city under single superintendents, people from those coalitions said. They include multiple Outward Bound schools that use a particular learning model, Internationals high schools that serve recent immigrants, and schools in the Performance Standards Consortium, which use alternative assessments instead of traditional tests.

But with the city so far sharing few details about the affinity groups and what role each will play, some groups have questioned the way decisions are being made.

“We’ve learned that there is politics in education,” a PSO leader said, “and politics came into play in this.”

Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said the chancellor’s redesign was meant to make sure schools get the support they need while giving successful principals more flexibility.

“The chancellor made the decision to streamline and align the school support structure by creating a system with stronger superintendents, Borough Field Support Centers, and affinity groups reporting to superintendents,” Kaye said, “based on her judgment that this was the structure that would be most effective in helping all our schools improve and all our students succeed.”