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Queens parent leader Sherée Gibson worried about turnout even before voting began in this spring’s elections for the city’s Community Education Councils, the 32 parent-led boards that oversee school zones and other policy issues.
New York City public school parents cast ballots through their children’s NYC Schools Accounts, but education officials say a third of the city’s roughly 900,000 students aren’t linked to accounts. Gibson, who worked on the last CEC election and was appointed by the Queens borough president to sit the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, said she voiced her concerns in numerous meetings and conversations.
She wasn’t the only one raising alarms. Staffers and parent leaders pleaded with the Education Department office that administers the elections — Family and Community Empowerment, known as FACE — to roll out publicity campaigns for account sign-ups and voter awareness in the fall ahead of voting, but a plan never got off the ground, according to interviews with parents and campaign workers. One incoming CEC member even stepped down in protest of the election results and lack of outreach, particularly to non-English-speaking and low-income families.
“The outreach wasn’t there,” said that prospective CEC member, Lilah Mejia.
Meanwhile, election workers were diverted from their duties while unanswered emails piled up in a CEC election inbox, according to several contracted workers.
In the end, only about 19,000 votes were cast across the five boroughs, according to Education Department figures. That’s about 2% of the city’s public school families. The city had a similar turnout last election, but that was earlier in the pandemic when many families may have been grappling with greater challenges.
Ultimately, candidates endorsed by the controversial Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education, or PLACE — which advocates rolling back recent policies that reduce screened school admissions — made big inroads, winning nearly 40% of the roughly 320 seats on the parent councils and capturing all of the seats up for election on the high school council, one of four citywide boards.
Chalkbeat interviewed more than 20 current and former FACE staffers, election campaign contractors, and parent leaders and reviewed numerous documents and emails that painted a picture of an office gripped by strife, with different factions leveling allegations of favoritism and discrimination. Several employees have filed complaints with various agencies against other staffers. Ultimately, observers say, the administration of the CEC elections may have suffered as a result.
“It was chaos,” said Tommy Sarkar, who worked as a contractor hired as a data analyst on the election.
The issues were so pervasive that two citywide parent groups called on the attorney general and city comptroller to audit FACE’s handling of the elections. According to a letter calling for the audit, the elections “were not carried out with fidelity, integrity, transparency and equity.”
Among other complaints was a lack of outreach to high schools, particularly in the Bronx where parents at only nine out of the borough’s 153 high schools voted for high school representatives on the Citywide Council on High Schools, according to the letter.
The attorney general’s office referred calls to the comptroller’s office, which said it was reviewing the groups’ complaints and assessing next steps.
The issues with the CEC elections have put a spotlight on turmoil within the office in charge of holding them. Some observers blame FACE’s leadership, including executive director Cristina Melendez, who took over in January 2022 after serving as a lead on the education transition team for Mayor Eric Adams. Others say that long-time staffers are causing turmoil, particularly those who have been through the turbulence of four executive directors in four years.
Chalkbeat asked the Education Department to comment on the strife inside FACE and the various complaints related to the office, but officials said they can’t comment on personnel issues or investigations. Melendez did not respond for comment.
Education officials said FACE has initiatives in place to help parents access their NYC Schools Account logins, including training school parent coordinators, giving incentives to districts with the highest number of sign-ups, and ensuring that Family Leadership Coordinators — who also help parent leaders and are based in each of the 45 superintendents’ offices — have tools and training to help parents.
“Family engagement is the cornerstone of a successful school system,” Education Department spokesperson Chyann Tull said in a statement. “We are committed to meeting families where they are and providing the support needed for our students to excel. The Office of Family and Community Empowerment was reorganized to increase transparency, rebuild trust, and deepen partnerships with all families.”
According to parents and staffers, the problems at FACE seem to run deep: The office has had little stability over the past several years, and with each new chancellor comes a new vision for what FACE should look like, causing tension among the staff and consternation among parents.
“Under every administration, you’ve seen different iterations of FACE,” said Brooklyn parent leader NeQuan McLean and president of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s CEC. “All of those administrations looked at parent leaders, parent engagement, and parent empowerment differently.”
He added: “FACE has always been the stepchild of the DOE. Parent engagement has never been a high priority.”
Internal strife plagues Family and Community Empowerment office
Over the past few months, infighting at the office has resulted in multiple formal complaints from all sides to various city agencies.
In one case, an employee filed a complaint alleging emotional distress with the Education Department’s Office of Equal Opportunity, according to paperwork obtained by Chalkbeat. The staffer, who said in the complaint that he suffered a panic attack during a meeting with Melendez, alleged that he was being targeted because he previously filed a grievance with his union, DC 37, that promotions were being doled out in violation of civil service rules.
Another complaint was also filed with the Special Commissioner of Investigations office, or SCI, against Melendez alleging that staff members in the FACE office were promoted to jobs in violation of civil service rules, while other employees who had fallen out of favor were targeted and retaliated against, according to people who saw the complaint.
SCI officials said they were aware of the matter, but the office doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of any open or ongoing investigations.
Allies of Melendez, meanwhile, lodged complaints of their own. A parent who worked as a contractor on the election outreach teams filed a complaint against some of the long-time FACE staffers with the Office of Equal Opportunity, alleging mistreatment, according to the complaint shared with Chalkbeat. Another parent contractor also complained about the staffers in emails to Chancellor David Banks and other Education Department officials.
Bronx parent Ilka Rios wrote in a June email to Deputy Chancellor Kenita Lloyd, who oversees FACE, along with Melendez and several others that she was treated poorly by long-time staff. She also claimed that when schools from lower-income areas like the South Bronx’s District 7 asked for presentations before the elections, the consultants were told to send them PowerPoint presentations, but when more affluent areas like Bayside in Queens’ District 26 requested the same presentations, the consultants had to be available.
“They made so many mistakes with that election process,” Rios told Chalkbeat. “They left out so many schools in the Bronx.”
Parents elected to a citywide board representing high school parents were all PLACE members, and more than half of them have children at the city’s specialized high schools — elite schools that require a test for entry and have long been criticized for their low enrollment of Black and Latino students.
Gloria Corsino, another parent leader brought on to work on the elections, filed an Office of Equal Opportunity complaint after a staffer allegedly referred to Corsino “wearing an ankle bracelet” — Corsino doesn’t, and she felt that implied she was a criminal.
Meanwhile, Sarkar, another contractor on the campaign, said he felt discriminated against when a manager urged the consultants to work on Eid, a Muslim holiday that Sarkar celebrates.
“I do not like to come down on anyone but it’s crunch time,” the manager wrote in an email shared with Chalkbeat. Even though the manager wasn’t forcing him to work, Sarkar said it felt like “there would be some kind of repercussion” if he didn’t, so he put in a few hours on the holiday.
Family and Community Empowerment has seen many iterations over the years
The discord in the FACE office comes against the backdrop of concerns that the office — tasked with supporting parent leaders from PTAs on up to CECs — hasn’t been made a priority by education leaders. While parent engagement is one of schools Chancellor David Banks’ “four pillars,” undergirding his vision on “building trust” in city schools, it’s the only one that has no action items under it, many parent leaders pointed out.
The office was created when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg won control over the nation’s largest school system in 2002. At that time, it was called the Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy, and it aimed to improve the relationship between schools and parents.
During the de Blasio administration, the office’s approach shifted. The Education Department merged the office with another one focused on supporting parents in the city’s community school program, which receive wraparound services. FACE held training sessions for parents on such topics as fundraising, collaboration, and governance.
Melendez — who calls herself the “parent whisperer” — is shaking things up again. A former bilingual education teacher in the Bronx and assistant principal, Melendez earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania in educational leadership. While there, she wrote a thesis entitled “Dominican parenting across generations” and examined difficulties the city had engaging Black and Latino parents. Prior to that, Melendez was a district supervisor for the city’s controversial renewal initiative aimed to turn around failing schools, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Melendez has been trying to reorganize the office from its borough-based structure into four categories: governance and policy; parent engagement and empowerment; community partnerships; and home-school partnerships, according to presentations shared with Chalkbeat. Some staffers say this is taking away focus from its role in supporting parent governance bodies, particularly the lower-level bodies like PTAs and school leadership teams, or SLTs. Some parent leaders say their governance-related questions have gone unanswered.
But others also welcome changes, hoping they could bring fresh ideas on how to meaningfully engage parents. Gibson, for instance, wants to see FACE involving parents on the city’s new literacy initiative mandating certain curriculums in elementary school. In the meantime, she’s been waiting a year to see the results of the office’s restructuring efforts.
“I think Cristina Melendez is under a lot of pressure to make things happen,” Gibson said. “And others want to stymie it.”
Some parents feel caught in the middle. Mejia, who served since last August as president of the CEC representing Manhattan’s Lower East Side and East Village, had been poised to start her new term as an appointment from the Manhattan borough president, but took her hat out of the ring.
In a conversation with Chalkbeat, Mejia said she was frustrated that FACE gave a NYC School Accounts sign-up presentation to CEC members — who already had accounts — but did not do such presentations more widely to all parents, particularly at schools with low voter participation. She complained about voting hurdles for non-English-speaking families and wondered why the Education Department didn’t distribute paper ballots through schools to help those with less tech literacy or access.
She also felt outraged that two PLACE-endorsed parents from Nest+M, a gifted and talented school located in her district that draws students from across the city, were elected to her CEC. Councils typically don’t include more than one parent from a school. The Education Department, however, upheld the outcome.
“FACE has turned me fully away,” the longtime parent activist said.
Julian Shen-Berro contributed.
Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at email@example.com.