Carranza — and his critics — dig in as controversy over racism and integration roils NYC’s schools

For weeks, tensions had been mounting.

Three top education officials sued New York City claiming they were demoted because they are white. Tucker Carlson, the conservative Fox News host, ran a segment criticizing the department’s expanded anti-bias workshops. And the New York Post had been zeroing in on specific hires, claiming the chancellor had skirted proper procedure to bring in friends from previous jobs.

Faced with a question about the controversy, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza’s message was blunt.

“There are forces in this city that want me to just be quiet,” he told reporters who gathered last week for a press conference announcing that the education department would accept a series of school integration measures. “They want me to be the good minority and just be quiet. Don’t bring the race issue up. I will not be silenced, I will not be quiet.”

In recent days, Carranza has come under siege from critics, including some local lawmakers, who see cronyism in his hiring practices, an over-emphasis on implicit-bias and the role of race in policy matters, and have decried the chancellor as “divisive.” At the same time, he enjoys staunch support among integration advocates who see the attacks as evidence of the very racism they say they are trying to combat in the nation’s most segregated school system.

That Carranza has brought in some of his own people from the outside is not, on its face, a stark departure from the practice of many school superintendents, some observers say. More unusual has been the fight’s public nature, and the stark battle lines it has already drawn around issues — racial bias and how to increase integration — that in recent decades have been all but absent from the policy table.

To Carranza’s supporters, the controversy is not surprising but the expected fallout from inevitably difficult and long overdue conversations — one reason, many of them say, they are not backing down in the face of pushback or criticism.

“The truth is, people who have been doing this work and people of color feel — finally, for once — there’s someone in that office who understands the issues,” said Naomi Peña, a proponent of integration and parent leader on Community Education Council in Manhattan’s District 1.

But whether the chancellor’s bold rhetoric and the resulting friction is sufficient or will lead to tangible changes in the classroom remains to be seen, especially given that Carranza likely has only a short runway under a term-limited mayor whose own time in office is nearly up.

“It’s not that difficult to stand up on a soapbox and yell and scream — and that’s necessary in a lot of ways. But it’s a lot harder to get the work done,” said Josh Starr, the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators.

From the earliest moments of his tenure, Carranza has set himself apart from his predecessors and even the mayor who hired him by relentlessly and unapologetically calling out racial inequities in the nation’s largest school system.

After weeks of critical Post stories, a small group of local lawmakers joined the fray on Saturday, releasing a letter asking for Carranza to be fired if he “continues to divide this city” with “contentious rhetoric” about race.

Next came the revelation that one of Carranza’s new directors, Abram Jimenez, had been sanctioned for improper conduct as a teacher and quit his job as assistant principal of a California school after an audit found more than $92,000 of school money had been “mismanaged.” He took leave this week.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell said Jimenez had extended an existing trip visiting family and noted that he left his assistant principal job for a more senior role. The department was aware of Jimenez’s disciplinary record from his teaching days when he was hired in New York City, Mantell said, chalking it up to a youthful mistake when Jimenez was 23 years old.

Hiring controversies and staff shake-ups are nothing new at Tweed, the education department’s Manhattan headquarters. Shortly after former Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained control of the city’s schools, two top officials resigned in a nepotism scandal. Perhaps most infamously, he appointed a schools chancellor, Cathie Black, who lacked the proper credentials and quit after just 95 days. When Carmen Fariña was appointed to head the department after Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, it marked a radical change in philosophy and, along with it, another staffing shake-up in the form of an exodus.

“It’s gone back for years,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy under the previous mayoral administration, of the staffing churn.

What is different this time about the reshuffling of personnel is that it has occurred against a backdrop of ongoing debate over racism in the school system, with the chancellor’s supporters and detractors lining up on either side of the issue and digging in.

The dueling expressions of support — and condemnation — have been followed up with rallies and a flood of posts on social media. In the midst of it all, Carranza has refused to give an inch, fielding multiple interviews to counter the criticism, and even seeming at times to relish the fight: posting video messages explaining his agenda and tweeting a defense of his hires.

The public attacks, far from putting a dent in his support, appear to have only invigorated integration activists and the chancellor’s defenders. About 100 staffers recently took to the steps of Tweed to rally in support of the chancellor, and a handful of high ranking officials brought in by the chancellor wrote an open letter on Medium standing by Carranza. Even Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” actress and education advocate, and former gubernatorial contender, has weighed in.

“Carranza has this parent’s support,” she recently tweeted.

One employee within the Office of Policy and Evaluation said he’s sensed no divisiveness in the department but noted that he might be “in a bubble” since his office has held regular discussions around racial equity since even before Carranza arrived. Far from causing consternation, criticism of Carranza has prompted discussion about why some people might not see eye to eye with the chancellor’s agenda.

The employee’s division within the department has been using the Post stories and similar coverage as examples of “white supremacy culture” during its race and equity discussions, said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak with the press.

“Even right after the first Post article came out, somebody printed a thing that said ‘We support Chancellor Carranza’ and posted it up in our office,” the employee said. “I think it’s mostly seen as all of these voices are not the norm within the DOE, so it’s mostly a chance for us to examine white supremacy.”

But Carranza’s detractors are not relenting either. This week, parents rallied in the rain near City Hall chanting, “Hey, ho. Carranza’s got to go!”

Joe Borelli, a councilman from Staten Island, is one of nine elected officials who signed onto the letter calling for Carranza’s potential removal. He said Carranza’s focus has alienated families who will ultimately need to buy into the city’s integration plans, and hasn’t done enough to lift school quality.

“The chancellor only is focused on issues of race and integration. I haven’t heard one iota out of his mouth on how we’re going to fix schools that have a problem producing competitive students,” Borelli told Chalkbeat.

Some observers say the criticism of Carranza is likely inevitable since there is no way to confront elements of inequity and racism within the education department without upsetting some employees, especially those who might have benefitted from the status quo.

“It is much easier to gain power and direct influence in the DOE and other similar institutions if you’re white,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former deputy chancellor during the Bloomberg administration and president of the Bank Street College of Education. “Talking about that in and of itself is very threatening for folks who haven’t examined the history of racism in our city and country.”

Yet it’s also possible the controversy could grow strong enough to become a distraction, hindering some of Carranza’s goals, said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. But that doesn’t mean Carranza should apologize for his bold rhetoric, he added. Instead, Mulgrew suggested, Carranza should continue meeting with school communities and show that he “respects other people’s thoughts and ideas and keep moving forward.”

“We knew this chancellor was going to run into a tough time before he even got here because the mayor had made it clear that he wanted a chancellor from outside the system ― that he thought the bureaucracy of the DOE had to be shaken up,” Mulgrew said.

It’s unclear how, or when, the conflict will be resolved. On the horizon is a mayoral election for 2021, which means Carranza’s time is almost certainly  limited. In New York City, the mayor appoints the chancellor. And de Blasio’s bid for the White House is creating its own political gravitational field. His run as a progressive could be bolstered by the chancellor’s unapologetic stance. So far, the mayor has stood by his schools chief, saying Carranza “isn’t going anywhere.”

Zipporah Osei contributed to this report.