the cruelest cut

A unionized charter school says it was betrayed by the unions

Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget. (Lisette Lopez, Renaissance student)
Renaissance students organized a protest against the freeze in their budget.

Staff at a Queens charter school that is represented by several city labor unions are growing frustrated with the unions, which they worry sat quietly by while state lawmakers slashed charter school budgets two weeks ago.

The school, Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, is expecting a cut of between $500,000 and $600,000 from what was projected for next year after state lawmakers froze planned funding increases to charter schools two weeks ago.

Charter school activists have said that they’re hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who founded another unionized charter school in Queens, will yet restore the extra funds to charter schools, but no deal has been struck yet.

That leaves teachers at Renaissance planning for possible teacher layoffs and big program cuts. (The $500,000 cut from the increase the school was expecting is especially hard to shoulder given that pension costs are skyrocketing by $300,000 next year and teacher salaries are slated to go up.)

A main frustration, a Renaissance administrator said, is that the unions to which Renaissance’s staff belong did not give them a heads up about the cuts — even though staff repeatedly asked union leaders if they should expect a cut. “Our members here feel shafted,” Nicholas Tishuk, Renaissance’s director of programs and accountability, said. “We were told that this charter school cut was mentioned two months ago, and it hasn’t been on anyone’s lips. And then we find out the Sunday night before the vote on Tuesday that not only was it on everyone’s lips; it’s actually happening.”

Most charter schools in New York City are not represented by teachers unions, since the schools operate outside of the Department of Education and therefore do not see their staffs unionize automatically. But the union has fought to bring charter schools teachers into its fold. Their slow but steady inclusion has put the union in the tricky position of on the one hand lobbying for limits on charter schools, while, on the other hand, representing some charter school staff.

Renaissance teachers had joined other charter school union members in a campaign to lobby against possible cuts to charter schools after a New York State teachers union official, Alan Lubin, indicated in February that he supported slashing funds to charter schools. Charter school supporters said that what he called for would have amounted to a double cut for charter schools, whose funding is based on the amount of money that goes to traditional public schools.

The concerns led a group of charter school teachers represented by unions to plan a press conference that would have called on the president of the New York City and national teachers union, Randi Weingarten, to denounce Lubin’s testimony. But the press conference was canceled after Weingarten wrote a letter to charter school teachers assuring them that she does not support unequal cuts. (Peter Murphy, of the New York State Charter School Association, first reported the canceled press conference on his blog.)

Tishuk, who as an administrator at Renaissance belongs to the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said that he also reached out to his union for advice, and was told by president Ernest Logan that he had not heard of any cuts. (I’ve yet to speak to Logan about this; I will report back with a comment from him.)

Tishuk said that representatives of the city teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, came to Renaissance last week to discuss concerns about the budget with staff, meeting first with Renaissance teachers and then with administrators. Tishuk said that staff members did not leave satisfied.

“We don’t think that it’s consistent to have a union charter school basically lose the support of the union. There’s plenty of political back and forth — they say the numbers are this, we say the numbers are that – but no matter how you cut it, next year I’m doing a budget that’s going to have $500,000 less in income, and $300,000 more in costs,” he said.

Tishuk said that he was also dismayed by testimony from a leader of the DC 37 union at yesterday’s City Council hearing about charter school expansion. A union leader testified critically of charter schools, yet office aides at Renaissance are represented by DC 37. “It just blew my mind,” Tishuk said.

I have not spoken yet to the two UFT officials Tishuk said he spoke with. I’ll report with those details.

Tishuk’s testimony to the City Council is below. You can also check out this Web site that students at Renaissance have made to protest the funding freeze.

Esteemed City Council Members,

My name is Nicholas Tishuk and I am the Director of Programs and Accountability at the Renaissance Charter School.  Our small school has served the Jackson Heights community in Queens for fifteen years and currently serves 530 students grades K-12.

We are a school that works:  we have happy kids, a dedicated and respected staff, and an involved parent body. We have received “A” ratings on our most recent K-8 and High School progress reports from the Department of Education and have K-8 and Regents scores that outperform similar schools and the City averages.  We are, in the very best sense, a community school serving the needs of families in Jackson Heights, District 30 and Queens.  As a conversion school, we are one of the oldest charter schools in New York City.

Our message is clear, charter schools are public schools and our 530 students and their families deserve to be treated with respect.  The recently passed budget from Albany has been called a “freeze”, but we had already received a preliminary allocation from the Department of Education and this “freeze” has slashed our expected budget by over $500,000 for the 2009-2010 school year.  This catastrophic budget cut has forced us to come together as a community.  I invite all City Council Members to visit our student developed website, linked below, which documents the rallies and march that our students participated in to let elected officials know how these cuts affect our small school in Queens.

Councilmen Dilan’s New York City Resolution 1889 is a step backward.  By making access to facilities and space more difficult, the City Council will be making a grave mistake.  I am an absolute believer and advocate for public education in New York City and, whether foes like them or not, charter schools are public schools full of public school children. To cut the funding for these children, as Albany has done, or to restrict their access to buildings, as Resolution 1889 proposes, is an injustice against the civil rights of our students to a great education.

Thank you for your time.

Nicholas Tishuk
The Renaissance Charter School

IPS referendum

Seeking property tax hikes, Indianapolis Public Schools considers selling headquarters

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

As Indianapolis Public Schools leaders prepare to ask voters for more money, they are considering a dramatic move: Selling the district’s downtown headquarters.

The administration is exploring the sale of its building at 120 E. Walnut St., which has housed the district’s central office since 1960, according to Superintendent Lewis Ferebee.

Although architecturally dated, the concrete building has location in its favor. It sits on a 1.7-acre lot, just blocks from the Central Library, the cultural trail, and new development.

A sale could prove lucrative for the cash-strapped Indianapolis Public Schools, which is facing a $45 million budget deficit next school year.

A decision to sell the property could also convince voters, who are being asked to approve property taxes hikes in November, that the district is doing all it can to raise money. Two referendums to generate additional revenue for schools are expected to be on the ballot.

“IPS has been very committed and aggressive to its efforts to right-sizing and being good stewards to taxpayers dollars,” Ferebee said. “Hopefully, that [will] provide much confidence to taxpayers that when they are making investments into IPS, they are strong investments.”

Before going to taxpayers for more money, the district has “exhausted most options for generating revenue,” Ferebee added.

The administration is selling property to shrink the physical footprint of a district where enrollment has declined for decades. The number of students peaked at nearly 109,000 late-1960s. This past academic year, enrollment was 31,000.

During Ferebee’s tenure, officials say Indianapolis Public Schools has shrunk its central office spending. But the district continues to face longstanding criticism over the expense of its administrative staff at a time when school budgets are tight.

Ferebee’s administration has been selling underused buildings since late 2015, including the former Coca-Cola bottling plant on Mass. Ave., and at least three former school campuses. Selling those buildings has both cut maintenance costs and generated revenue. By the end of this year, officials expect to have sold 10 properties and raised nearly $21 million.

But the district is also embroiled in a more complicated real estate deal. After closing Broad Ripple High School, the district wants to sell the property. But state law requires that charter schools get first dibs on the building, and two charter high schools recently floated a joint proposal to purchase the building.

The prospect of selling the central office raises a significant challenge: If the building were sold, the district would either need to make a deal for office space at the site or find a new location for its employees who work there. Ferebee said the district is open to moving these staffers, so long as the new location is centrally located, and therefore accessible to families from all around the district.

It will likely be months before the district decides whether or not to sell the property. The process will begin in late July or early August when the district invites developers to submit proposals for the property, but not a financial bid, according to Abbe Hohmann, a commercial real estate consultant who has been helping the district sell property since 2014.

Once the district sees developers’ ideas, leaders will make a decision about whether or not to sell the building. If it decides to move forward, it would proceed with a more formal process of a request for bids, and could make a decision on a bid in early 2019, Hohmann said.

Hohmann did not provide an estimate of how much the central office building could fetch. But when it comes to other sales, the district has “far exceeded our expectations,” she said. “We’ve had a great response from the development community.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.