How Eva Moskowitz’s growing bureaucracy handled a school-supply fiasco

Days before the start of this school year, principals across New York City faced a nightmare scenario: large portions of their furniture and books were not actually in their schools, but miles away in a warehouse on Long Island. Students might arrive and have no chairs to sit in or books to read.

Worst of all, the disaster was happening at a school system created by Eva Moskowitz, the ambitious school founder who has staked her career on a blistering critique of school systems’ inefficient bureaucracies that harm children’s ability to learn.

In this case, Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter Schools responded swiftly. A team of staffers from the network was dispatched to Long Island to sort the furniture and supplies into boxes destined for the right schools, staff members said, volunteering nights and weekend days to complete the work.

By the first day of school, the Success Academy schools had what they needed. Within weeks, the executive overseeing operations no longer worked at Success.

“We just all pitched in and it got done,” said spokeswoman Ann Powell. “Not all things run as smoothly and perfectly as we would like.”

The incident offers a window into how a school system designed to upend traditional bureaucracy will handle classic logistical challenges as it rapidly expands its footprint in New York City.

Already the largest charter school network in the city, Success’ central offices are growing almost as fast the schools. Today, their 34 schools serve 11,000 students — roughly the number attending district schools in the Lower East Side’s District 1 — and Moskowitz wants to reach 100 schools in a decade.

With that growth has come the trials of running a large school system, like managing huge book deliveries. It also means the network has needed to add more staff to support schools, according to the organization’s tax forms. In 2013, the network employed a total of 575 people, up from 125 just two years earlier.

Powell said that the network had 246 full-time employees as of September and that many people who work there are in internships or work part-time.

“Every year we add more grades,” Powell said. “The support we want to provide to the schools has become a little more elaborate.”

Moskowitz has criticized the district school system for its inefficiencies and inability to quickly fix problems since her days as a city council member representing the Upper East Side. She has been outspoken about her belief that the work rules in union contracts are often to blame, a perspective that has made her an enemy of the United Federation of Teachers, among other groups who object to Moskowitz’s aggressive advocacy tactics.

“It’s her conflictual way of approaching everything,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew told the New York Times Magazine last year. “It’s, ‘I’m going to show we’re better than public schools.’”

In building Success Academy, which began with a single school in 2006, Moskowitz has sought to develop an organization that is able to nimbly pivot when a certain program isn’t working, a view she described in a LinkedIn post this summer.

“Schools often take the view that if they have a problem, fixing it should wait until the next year,” she wrote. “I don’t believe that. If you waste a year of a kid’s life, the child will never get that time back.”

Just a few days later, that philosophy was put to a test.

Many Success Academy schools put their books and furniture in storage when the school year ends to clear the way for renovations, explained Khari Shabazz, a principal at a Success Academy middle school. But this summer, no one kept track of the inventory after it was boxed up and sent to the warehouse. Officials didn’t realize there was a problem until the school year was about to start.

“I know from how hard they were working there was an urgent situation going on,” Shabazz said. “I don’t know what the warehouse looked like to them, but apparently it was in a state where they had to go in and work around the clock.”

Shabazz, who has worked at Success since 2007, recalls when operations were run out of a single room. As more schools opened, support staff moved into offices in Harlem. Now there are schools in four boroughs and a separate downtown headquarters with a hefty annual rent.

“I’m actually amazed at the level of sophistication needed to do this kind of enterprise,” said Shabazz, who noted that a separate supervisor in his school is responsible for handling operations.

The school supplies episode preceded a larger management shakeup at Success. The network recently added several people to its leadership ranks, including new heads of academics, operations, enrollment, and marketing.

Noel Leeson, ‎the executive vice president in charge of business operations during the inventory crisis, left the network this month after two years. Kris Cheung, a longtime Success director, was promoted to chief operations officer shortly after. Dennis McIntosh, the network’s chief financial officer, who joined Success less than two years ago, also left this month. Attempts to reach Leeson and McIntosh were unsuccessful.

Powell declined to comment on the departures. The new leadership positions were not related to the supply issues, but the network’s growth, she said.

Moskowitz, who was not available for an interview, acknowledged other issues in the LinkedIn post, including curriculum materials that didn’t live up to their promise. Her schools are like Elon Musk’s rockets, she wrote, only with even higher stakes.

“By learning from our mistakes, constantly reassessing, and fixing problems now, not later, we built a culture of success that can persist even when something major – like a rocket – blows up,” she wrote.

Correction: A previous version had the wrong total for the number of schools currently operated by Success.