David Banks became the leader of New York City’s school system in January at a moment of crisis, with the omicron variant fueling an explosion in coronavirus cases that sent student attendance plunging.
Yet aside from a flurry of COVID briefings that tapered off after a few weeks, Banks’ first three months in office were dominated by introductions with key elected officials (34 meetings), school tours (21 visits), media requests (14 interviews), and meetings with other government, corporate, and nonprofit leaders, according to a copy of his calendar provided through a public records request.
He wasted no time setting up meetings with politicians — from city councilors, state legislators, and borough presidents to national figures. Just days after taking office, he seems to have met with Hillary Clinton, an early supporter of the Eagle Academy schools Banks helped launch in 2004. On Feb. 1 he appears to have met with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on Zoom. (Those people are listed on Banks’ schedule as AOC and HRC. A department spokesperson declined to confirm their identities; representatives of the two politicians did not respond.)
Banks also sat down with Bo Dietl, a retired police detective who has worked on behalf of longtime Trump advisor Steve Bannon, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, and shock radio personality Don Imus. During his unsuccessful run for mayor in 2017, Dietl tweeted that the teachers union has “hijacked our classrooms” and educators should be required to pass drug tests.
The chancellor’s calendar does not explain why Dietal landed a meeting with the schools chief on Feb. 7 at the education department’s downtown Manhattan headquarters, though he is friendly with Banks’ boss, Mayor Eric Adams.
Reached by phone, Dietl declined to say what the two spoke about. “Any business I do is my business,” he said, adding a string of expletives before hanging up. (An education department spokesperson declined to say what they discussed.)
The schedule obtained by Chalkbeat reveals who had the chancellor’s ear as he began navigating his first job running a school system. In his first 89 days, from January through March, he met with union officials representing teachers, cafeteria workers, and crossing guards. He kept in touch with his successor at The Eagle Academy Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Eagle Academy schools.
The records come with some important caveats. The calendar does not include every conversation the chancellor has, including off-the-cuff or impromptu meetings, or discussions over email. It appears to be heavily redacted, with many pages left blank.
City officials said some information was redacted from the schedule for privacy reasons, including details that could reveal parent or student identities. Information that could reflect deliberations about policy were also excluded. Many of the entries do not include meeting descriptions or even the full names of the people who attended.
The schedule also reveals who isn’t meeting with Banks regularly. The mayor, for instance, does not appear on Banks’ schedule for sit-downs. An education department spokesperson said the mayor and chancellor speak one on one “several times a week” and the chancellor participates in a leadership call every morning with the mayor. Officials did not say why those meetings don’t appear on his schedule.
Banks’ calendar does not include any conversations with advocates for school integration, an issue Banks has not prioritized. (Still, he met with some integration advocates before officially becoming chancellor and a spokesperson said he met with advocates after his first three months.) Representatives of the principals union do not make an appearance on the schedule. Nor do any previous chancellors.
“Chancellor Banks keeps a busy schedule of formal meetings with a diverse group of educators, school leaders, parent leaders, elected officials, and community leaders,” education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said in a statement. “Additionally, these meetings are augmented with informal calls with leaders from across the city.”
Styer noted that the COVID briefings that appeared didn’t end but were later included as part of a daily call with the mayor.
It also took the agency seven months to respond to Chalkbeat’s request for Bank’s calendar for his first three months in office, longer than it took other agencies to produce the mayor and his chief of staff’s schedules for six months worth of activities.
Still, the records provide some insight into Banks’ early days in office. Here are five other takeaways:
The schedule is a reminder that Adams has elevated members of Banks’ family to key roles. Banks’ fiancé Sheena Wright, who is also deputy mayor for strategic initiatives, appears on the schedule seven times. The reasons for many of Banks’ meetings are not listed, though two meetings with Wright focused on summer school and employment opportunities, which expanded this year to serve thousands more students. Another meeting included Lester Young, the chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, though the topic is not listed.
Banks met with his brother Phil Banks, the deputy mayor for public safety who was previously named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a corruption case when he was a top police official. The brothers discussed school safety issues at a meeting in January attended by at least one other education department official. They participated in a meeting on “school telehealth” in March with the health commissioner and another deputy mayor — and met to talk about “physical education” in April, according to Phil Banks’ schedule. (David Banks’ calendar does not list any meetings with the police commissioner.)
Parent leaders who favor selective admissions have the chancellor’s ear. On March 10, Banks met virtually with 15 elected community education council members — all of whom were endorsed by Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education or are members of that group. PLACE NYC advocates for policies that sort students by academic ability and Banks recently announced plans to double down on selective admissions at middle and high schools after the city eased up on those policies during the pandemic.
Lucas Liu, president of the parent council in Manhattan’s District 3 who attended the March meeting, said he couldn’t recall what was discussed, but said Banks has generally been more receptive. Banks is “asking for input and what we think the solutions should be,” Liu said, noting that participants attended in their capacity as parent council leaders. “Even getting meetings with [former Chancellor] Carranza’s senior people was a challenge from a PLACE perspective,” he added.
But others haven’t felt as heard. NeQuan McLean, the community education council president in Bedford-Stuyvesant, met with the chancellor on March 30 to pitch a series of community conversations about school and neighborhood violence. Banks has spoken repeatedly about the topic and recently announced an anti-violence initiative, but McLean said the specific community events he envisioned have not come to fruition. “They never followed up on my request,” he said. “I think people need to have a real conversation about safety.”
Banks made an appearance at an exclusive club frequented by the mayor. Adams often spends time at Zero Bond — an exclusive, members-only club in NoHo — and Banks made an appearance there at 7:30 p.m. on March 7. The mayor’s schedule does not show whether he was there that evening and a spokesperson declined to say. The mayor and chancellor were scheduled to visit Adams’ alma mater, Bayside High School, the following morning.
Some union officials are not a regular presence. Banks met with representatives of the teachers union twice, though city and union officials did not say if the union’s chief, Michael Mulgrew, attended. He met twice with Henry Garrido, the head of District Council 37, which represents cafeteria workers, crossing guards, and other school staff.
A notable absence: representatives of the city’s principals union. Mark Cannizzaro, who helms the principals union, wrote that he “talks regularly” with Banks, but wasn’t sure if he had any formal meetings with the chancellor during his first three months in office. A department spokesperson said the chancellor speaks with the principal and teachers union leaders regularly, but did not say why that isn’t reflected on the schedule.
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.