idealocrats branch out

The lobbying group challenging teachers unions takes on America

A screenshot from DFER's web site advertises four new branches. (Only three are legally official so far; Florida is yet to come.)
A screenshot from ##http://www.dfer.org/##DFER's web site## advertises four new branches. (The Florida branch is yet to be official, according to executive director Joe Williams.)

The lobbying group whose H.R. recommendations virtually staffed President Obama’s Education Department is spreading its “reform” tentacles.

Democrats for Education Reform now has branches in Missouri, Colorado, and Wisconsin, in addition to its hometown, New York, and the organization plans to be in 10 states by 2011, executive director Joe Williams told me earlier this week.

“We have very good conditions at the federal level right now for at least talking about reform, but we’re really talking about what at the end of the day is a local issue,” Williams said. “So the strength of any national organization like ours is really going to come down to how strong its local units are.”

The new branches are mostly self-sustaining, relying on leadership from volunteer boards and local residents already active in education. “It’s a lot of people who were doing a lot of work on reform, but there was no political arm to engage at the political level,” Williams said.

What Williams calls DFER’s “outpost” in Colorado is a case study for its plans elsewhere. Rather than generate policy ideas, the organization focuses on raising money for candidates who support its favored brand of changes to education — policies like charter schools, merit pay, and higher teaching standards. Among the Colorado officials DFER supports is Mike Johnston, who advised candidate Obama’s presidential campaign and replaced the president of Colorado’s state senate, Peter Groff, after he joined President Obama’s education department.

Williams said DFER is also focusing on school board elections in Denver, giving money to members who support its agenda. In Missouri, the goal is to support a new mayor of St. Louis who has welcomed charter school operators to the city, with support from the Walton Foundation. Other regions on the horizon include Florida, Rhode Island, and Newark, New Jersey.

The political work, especially at the school board level, offers a direct challenge to teachers unions, which spent much of the 20th century building up political operations to support friendly school board members and state and federal lawmakers in elections. Unions also act as federations, with independent branches in cities and states across the country under the umbrella of national offices.

Williams didn’t say how much money the organization has spread so far, explaining that numbers are difficult to collect because the organization mostly coordinates individual checks. In New York, the organization has directed “a few million” dollars since late 2006, he estimated.

I wrote about DFER’s work in New York as one of my first assignments for The New York Sun, focusing on the hedge-fund-heavy makeup of the group’s board of directors (which has since been lampooned):

As investors, the group’s leaders spend their days searching for hidden diamonds in the rough: businesses the market has left for dead, but a savvy investor could turn for a profit. A big inner-city school system, Mr. Tilson explained, is kind of like that — the General Motors of the education world. “I see very, very similar dynamics: very large bureaucratic organizations that have become increasingly disconnected from their customers; that are producing an inferior product and losing customers; that are heavily unionized,” he said. A successful charter school, on the other hand, is like “Toyota 20 years ago.”

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.”