west side story

Backing her kid’s school, actress Cynthia Nixon joins UWS war

A resolution to move an Upper West Side middle school passed on Wednesday night, but not before Cynthia Nixon — “Sex and the City” actress, Alliance for Quality Education spokeswoman, and parent at the school — was shouted down briefly during a heated public comment session.

Nixon was stepping into a fight that has been raging on the Upper West Side for months. The fight began as a discussion about how to deal with overcrowding at public schools but has spiraled into a raging debate about class and race and privilege in Upper Manhattan.

Confrontations have gotten incredibly emotional — and personal: On this site, a commenter posing as Cynthia Nixon’s fictional son, Brady, from “Sex and the City” accused his “mom” of hypocrisy. And parents at Nixon’s school, called the Center School, have charged another school’s parents with racism and class prejudice, citing postings from last January on the Urban Baby Web site that called Center School students “thugs.”

At issue is a plan that would move the Center School from its current home inside a larger elementary school on West 70th Street, PS 199. Supporters of the plan tout it as an easy way to relieve crowding at the elementary school, which is growing so quickly that parents fear it will not have room to hold their younger children.

Opponents, including Nixon, argue that moving the Center School exacerbates segregation by race and class. (PS 199, a zoned school, is two-thirds white, while the Center School, which draws its students from throughout the district, is half white and has a higher proportion of black and Hispanic students.)

If the plan becomes official, which it almost certainly will after Wednesday’s vote, the Center School will move to another school building several blocks away.

Nixon and other Center School parents have vehemently opposed the plan for months, making fliers and using the school’s Web site to organize protests. They also delivered passionate testimony at the meeting Wednesday, choosing Nixon and another mother to represent their cause.

In her short remarks, captured in the video above, Nixon argued that there is a stark difference between the demographic of the Center School and the “increasingly white and increasingly affluent” elementary school it shares space with. Moving the Center School away, she said, would lead to a “de facto segregated building on 70th Street.”

The Upper West Side school war began in September, when the city Department of Education suggested two plans for how the Upper West Side could relieve crowding.

One would have moved 30 percent of students to new schools. But the local parent council that has final authority over zoning matters last week indicated that it would back a much tamer plan. That one would move only a handful of students, keep siblings in the same school, and, most controversially, relocate two schools. One of those schools, Anderson, a gifted school that pulls students from across the city, agreed to a move. The other, the Center School, where Cynthia Nixon is a parent, has spent weeks fighting tooth and nail against the plan.

The people booing Nixon were led by a growing group of parents who are zoned for PS 199 but fear that increasing crowding could make the school too packed to have room for their children. If the Center School moves out of their building, that will shore up space for their children at PS 199. These parents, who have maintained a Web site that some say contains misinformation, turned out in large numbers to the meeting on Wednesday. (Below the jump, view a video of their spokesman, Eric Shuffler, speaking out at the meeting; he, too, was booed.)

But Nixon’s contingent was by far the largest. It included not only by Center School parents but also parents from at least four neighborhood schools, who echoed Nixon’s argument about diversity. The group walked out in protest as the council prepared to vote. A number of PS 199 parents who said they supported the Center School joined them.

Also walking out — at times to shouts of “Yes, we can” — were parents from the Computer School, a middle school whose building will be Anderson’s new home, and PS 75, a diverse elementary school whose zone was trimmed in the resolution.

Council members said they had no authority to involve issues of diversity in the rezoning process. “The [Community Education Council] does value diversity. We’ve talked about it,” CEC 3 member Jennifer Freeman told me after the meeting. “We were working with the tools available to us so the main topic in this conversation had to be overcrowding. We would welcome the opportunity to talk about diversity more.”

During the meeting, one council member explained that she wanted to deal with issues of race and class segregation in the district but that now was not the right time to do so.

“If not now, when?” audience members shouted at her.

That council member, Danielle Moss Lee, ultimately abstained from voting. She was the only council member present who did not vote in favor of the resolution.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”