head count

DOE likely to increase class size targets, official says

The city’s Department of Education will likely lift the ceiling on class sizes this year, a department official said today.

DOE chief operating officer Photeine Anagnostopoulos told the City Council education committee this morning that it was realistic to expect the city to “adjust” its class size targets. How dramatic the increases will be is still unclear, she said.

“We have to go back and do some more homework,” Anagnostopoulos said.

Anagnostopoulous’ comments came during a hearing on the department’s use of state Contracts for Excellence funding. The funds are given to school districts that prove they will spend the funds in six key areas, one of which is class size reduction.

As part of the legal settlement that established the funds, the city was required to adopt a five-year plan for class size reduction. Under that agreement, which the state approved in 2007, the city planned to reduce class size to around 20 students in kindergarten through third grade, around 23 students in grades four through eight by the 2011-12 school year.

That plan was made under the assumption that the amount of state money would increase each year, Anagnostopolous said. This year, in the face of a severe budget deficit and looming cuts, the state froze the funds and planned to grant the city the same amount it received last year.

“Now we have two years with no new money,” Anagnostopolous said.

Anagnostopoulos said that though the total amount of Contracts for Excellence funding will remain constant this school year, how the money is spent will change.

A growing number of principals have decided to spend their funds not on reducing class size, but in one of the program’s other key areas, Agnostopolous said.

“It’s likely that the combination of budget cuts and rising costs created a situation where principals felt that other strategies would be more effective and achievable than class size reduction,” she said. She later pointed to an increase in funding for programs for English language learners as an example of where principals may be redirecting their spending.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of the non-profit Class Size Matters, disputed this claim in testimony later in the hearing. She pointed to responses to her organization’s survey of principals that suggests many principals believe their large class sizes prevent them from providing a quality education to their students.

Anagnostopoulos spent much of the rest of the hearing defending the department’s handling of the public comment process on how the funds should be spent. While most school districts in the state held their mandatory hearings on the funds over the summer, the city DOE delayed their hearings until after the school year began.

Anagnostopoulos defended the decision to hold the hearings later in the year, saying that it did not make sense to hold hearings on the funds until after the overall city budget was set.

She added that the move was intended to increase public participation in the hearings, though she said the department had not compiled numbers on how many people attended the hearings, which took place at the first meeting of each local district’s Community Education Council.

A representative of the group that brought the lawsuit which resulted in the state funds said that was no excuse for delaying the hearings. “The time line really makes a mockery of the process,” said Helaine Doran, deputy director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.

The hearing also resurrected a debate over whether the city is using the state funds to supplement its own budget, or using the state funds instead of allocating city money to areas like class size reduction. Under the state legislation establishing the fund, the city is required to use the funds “supplement, not supplant” its own spending, which Anagnostopolous said the city was doing.

Doran and Eric Weitman, the New York City advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, charged that the city had cut more from the budgets of the highest needs schools. The result, they said, was that the Contracts for Excellence funds are being used to fill in the gaps.

“We think supplanting is still on the table here,” Doran said.

The Alliance for Quality Education made the same argument in a new report on how the city is using its Contracts for Excellence spending, timed to coincide with the hearing. The report is not available on the AQE website, but here it is in full:

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.”