on the horizon

Pressure is mounting on DOE to follow city contracts rules

City Council Member Melinda Katz introduced a resolution asking the state to change the law so that the Department of Education is required to follow city contracting rules.
City Council Member Melinda Katz introduced a resolution asking the state to change the law so that the Department of Education is required to follow city contracting rules. (Via ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/azipaybarah/2414997941/##Azi's Flickr##)

Comptroller Bill Thompson attracted lots of press Wednesday by accusing the Department of Education of “runaway spending” on contracts. But another, less sexy development could have a much greater impact.

That’s the fact that momentum is growing to force the department to follow the same contracting rules as other city agencies, in the form of endorsements from a list of advocates, including one office that rarely butts into policy debates, and a new City Council resolution calling on a change in the state law that allows the DOE to duck the usual regulations.

Agencies from the NYPD to the parks department cannot hand taxpayer dollars over to an outside contractor without first following the rules of a citywide office called the Procurement Policy Board. The DOE is the only city agency that does not have to follow the board’s rules, which do everything from forcing public hearings on contracts above a certain price to imposing strict guidelines on what contracts have to be bid competitively.

The DOE’s exception was born well before the 2002 mayoral control law gave the mayor authority over the schools, but it has gotten more attention under the new structure, which makes school contracts harder to track. While the old Board of Education reviewed all contracts above a certain size before they were signed and held public hearings where citizens could respond to the contracts, the Department of Education has presented only a small number of contracts before the new version of the board, the Panel for Educational Policy.

The result is that hundreds of contracts have been offered without competitive bidding — and without a public hearing to discuss what the contracts include.

A group of Columbia Journalism students has reported that the DOE also makes it difficult to find contracts once they’ve been signed. The department does not maintain reading rooms for the public to review contract documents, against the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, and many contracts simply aren’t available for review, they reported. Asked about the concerns at a City Council hearing Wednesday, school officials said they would look into them.

A Public Airing

The lack of PEP hearings is despite language in the state law that gives the panel the power to “approve contracts that would significantly impact the provision of educational services or programming within the district.” (Read a PDF of the law here.)

Patrick Sullivan, a PEP representative from Manhattan who is a critic of the Bloomberg administration, told me that he has seen only labor contracts come before the PEP, never a goods-and-services contract. Sullivan said that he recently asked the department to submit a new $79 million contract with a firm called MAXIMUS to manage special education data for a PEP vote.

The department’s general counsel, Michael Best, denied Sullivan’s request in an e-mail message that I obtained, though he did offer to share some information about the contract — after the meeting had happened. Best wrote:

If you really want to see the contract, we do not have an electronic version to send around, but if you were willing to come down to tweed we can arrange to let you take a look at it.

Sullivan, who was appointed by the Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer, said he was not satisfied. “If the PEP had to vote on the contracts, then there would be some accountability there. Then we would be holding Klein accountable for the spending,” he said. “Because they refuse to allow any of those, and they just spend whatever they want and whenever they want, they’re refusing to comply with the accountability requirements of the law.”

A spokeswoman for the department, Ann Forte, said of the contract, “We do not believe Panel approval was required.”

City Council members would urge state lawmakers to make that change under a resolution introduced this week by Council member (and comptroller candidate) Melinda Katz. “It is amazing to me that there would be allowed any exception to what any city agency must do,” Katz said at a hearing Wednesday, announcing the resolution.

School officials yesterday declined to follow an invitation from Katz to self-impose the restrictions other agencies follow. They said the department’s exception is important because it allows the system’s 1,400-odd schools to buy things like copy machines and textbooks on their own, without having to navigate a maze of regulations. “They need the flexibility, within accountability guidelines, to actually make the purchases necessary for their students,” the department’s chief operating officer, Photo Anagnostopoulos, said.

Best, the department’s general counsel, said other mayoral agencies must get every contract they write reviewed by a chief contracting officer. That would be very difficult in a system of 1,500 schools, he said.

Katz and other advocates said Wednesday that the exception means the department’s contracts fly under the radar of proper oversight.

George Sweeting, the deputy director of the city’s Independent Budget Office, added his endorsement to the resolution, in a move he said was unusual for the IBO, which usually stays out of policy debates.

“The PPB rules are intended to improve transparency, avoid excessive costs, and reduce the potential for favoritism that can result in the absence of competitive bidding,” Sweeting said in prepared testimony. “It is difficult to understand how those rules are considered useful when other city agencies procure goods and services, but unnecessary or too cumbersome for the DOE.”

The Speed Imperative

City Council members also pointed to the department’s $16 million contract with Alvarez & Marsal, the consulting firm that re-arranged the school system’s bureaucracy. The contract attracted attention because it was awarded without any bidding and because it led to the 2007 scandal where a midyear rerouting of school bus lines left many children stranded in the cold. The department has said the bus routing was a mistake but defends the rest of Alvarez & Marsal’s work, which it says saved the city $170 million.

David Ross, the department’s head of contracting, told City Council members Wednesday that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein awarded Alvarez & Marsal the contract without any competitive bidding because he felt a time crunch. “The chancellor had an interest in completely making extensive changes to the school system and operations,” Ross said. “It was felt that it was just not practical or possible to do an RFP or competitive process and make the reforms and changes that were needed in the schools.”

He said that Alvarez & Marsal “had the advantage” because they had already begun working with the school system under a contract with the Fund for Public Schools, which used private philanthropic donations to start off work with the firm. “They were already there. They had done a lot of the work,” Ross said. “So the inertia behind them was already very significant.”

School officials repeatedly called the Alvarez & Marsal contract unique. In an interview yesterday, Ross told me that the department handed out $28 million in no-bid contracts in 2008, a number he said is low compared to years past. In testimony to the City Council, Anagnostopoulos said the so-called “exceptions” contracts were all less than $5 million in value, and 85 percent of them were with community-based organizations that run pre-kindergarten classes.

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.