dear readers

Raising our standards and evolving, with your help

While the school system limps toward a new governance structure, we at GothamSchools are shaking things up, too. To mark our first anniversary, we’re adding new staff (have you noticed those shiny new bylines?), excessing old ones, paying the bills in a new way, and changing up our content delivery model. We also plan to throw a party, at which we hope you’ll help us celebrate our continued existence despite the tough times.

Finally — permit one more forced parallel? — this post marks a new era of transparency and reader input, because we are both telling you all about the changes and asking for your help in pulling them off.

Please begin by enjoying our revised design, in which we distinguish between shorter dispatches and full-blown, robustly reported daily news stories. The shorter dispatches are indented and touched off by arrows, as in the post below this one. The stories are in the same maroon-headed format that you’re used to seeing blog posts.

The goal is to hold ourselves to an even higher standard, truth-telling-wise, while still keeping you up to date on the minutiae of school news (who just went wild at a City Council hearing, what article we just read and recommend, a deep thought, a breaking news item). The one unanswered question is what the new, indented dispatches should be called. Our working prospect is “margin notes,” but we want to consider all the possibilities before making that final. Please enter your ideas in the comments or write to tips@gothamschools.org if it’s too private and/or brilliant to share with the group.

The Community section will also be evolving. We’re keeping our current stable of columnists and adding some new ones. We’ll also be adding a new category of contributor, diarists, who will give firsthand dispatches from inside the school system. Our goal is to have a good mix of parents, teachers, students, and school leaders. We’ll keep publishing “guest perspectives” (what newspapers call op/eds) by submission in the Community section, too. Send an e-mail to community@gothamschools.org for consideration in any part of the Community.

On the personnel side, Philissa Cramer, a founding staff member, is leaving full-time reporting to go off to New York University, where she is studying the history of education. Elizabeth Green is also changing her role as she heads off to Columbia University to commence the Spencer Fellowship, a program that gives working journalists sabbaticals at the Journalism School and Teachers College. She won’t be too far away from GothamSchools matters; her fellowship project is about the transformation of the city’s public schools under Michael Bloomberg. And both Philissa and Elizabeth will stay involved at GothamSchools part-time. Philissa will edit the community section, Elizabeth will be overall editor, and both will contribute regularly to the new “margin notes,” or whatever we decide to call it. Meanwhile, we’ve brought two energetic reporters on to keep up the full-time newsgathering, Anna Phillips and Maura Walz. Read more about all of us here.

Penultimately, about the money. We’ve been fortunate through this year to be incubated by a generous nonprofit, The Open Planning Project, which covered all our bills through September 1. We’re still tied to TOPP, but we’re also moving to raise money from more sources. A generous donation from one of our earliest contributors, Ken Hirsh, allowed us to stay afloat this fall. We need more help, though, both to keep up the journalism we do now and to improve the work we do in the future.

Want more video? We need cameras! Want more interactive databases? We need to pay web designers. Want more up-to-the-minute coverage? We need USB modems. We’ll be spending part of this year asking for your support in keeping our site going. Even a small donation could really help. E-mail keepusgoing@gothamschools.org if you’re interested or have questions about the new funding model.

Finally, that party: we’ll share more details as we figure them out, but rest assured it will be both a chance to celebrate the community that’s grown up around our site and an opportunity to hit us with your best shots about how we can improve. We see this reorganization as the first step in an evolution in which we will become, at every step, better at digging up and dispatching the school news. Share ideas about the bigger picture or just the party by e-mailing tips@gothamschools.org.

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.”