come on everybody let's rally

Spike in anti-school closure protests begins to heat up the winter

Students and teachers protest the proposed closure of Jamaica High School on Wednesday. Photo courtesy William McDonald.
Students and teachers protest the proposed closure of Jamaica High School on Wednesday. Photo courtesy William McDonald.

Tis the season to light candles, exchange gifts, visit family — and protest school closures?

Last week marked the beginning of what promises to be an unusually heated season of rallies organized by opponents of the city’s plan to close 20 schools.

Some activists point to a heightened sensitivity around this year’s school closings. But the spike in public demonstrations may also be due to changes in school governance law that has required DOE officials to explain and defend their closure proposals in public, where those decisions were once made behind closed doors.

“I think the amount of activity this year is definitely unusual,” said parent activist Leonie Haimson. “Among people who pay attention to these things, I think there’s an overwhelming sense of enough is enough and an attitude that we’re going to fight back.”

This afternoon, teachers union head Michael Mulgrew will join parents and City Council members to protest school closings on the steps of Tweed Courthouse.

Last week, hundreds of students, parents and teachers rallied against the closure of Jamaica High School in Queens. Smaller protest gatherings were also held at Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, Metropolitan Corporate Academy and Maxwell High School in Brooklyn. Much of last week’s four-hour-long citywide school board meeting was spent in public comment session as students and teachers vented their frustration at the proposed school phase-outs.

And in the new year, the frequency of demonstrations against closings is expected to increase. According to a list of demonstrations circulated by the city teachers union, events are being planned at schools slated for closure for nearly every weekday during the first two weeks of the year. Members of an internal opposition group within the UFT have begun to organize a January protest at City Hall or at the residence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A UFT official said union representatives met with teachers at all of the schools facing closure, offering support to anyone who wanted to fight. Teachers at more than half the schools accepted the offer, he said. Some teachers, such as those at Jamaica, used UFT phone banks to encourage parents and teachers to attend Wednesday’s rally against closing the high school.

Schools were given more advance warning because of a newly-mandated 45-day comment period before a final decision can be made, Haimson said. Public hearings now required to be held at each school slated for closure give opponents a natural platform for organized protests. And the January 26 Panel for Educational Policy meeting, the first public vote on school closures since the DOE began shuttering schools in the 2004-05 school year, will likely draw teachers and families from all over the city to Brooklyn Tech’s thousand-seat auditorium.

Haimson said that while the changes in governance laws have made a difference, a more important factor has been an increased awareness of the consequences of school closures for students and teachers. “The first few rounds, there wasn’t enough of an understanding about the effects of the situation,” she said.

Norm Scott, an activist and member of an opposition party within the UFT, said that an increase in the number of schools slated for closure may correspond to an increase in protests. The DOE announced plans to shutter 20 schools this year, more than in previous rounds — last year, 12 schools began to phase out, and 15 the year before that.

Scott also said there may also be a greater level of surprise at which schools were selected in this round of closings. “Now what they’ve done is take schools where people are really shocked,” he said. Some of the schools slated for closure have received bonuses for the past two years for reaching their performance targets on state tests, and other schools with lower graduation rates dodged the ax.

Each round of school closings has been controversial. A DOE official said that opposition against closures this round has not reached the level it did last year, when a group of parents, community leaders and the UFT sued to prevent the DOE from closing three elementary schools and replacing them with charter schools. The DOE backed off that plan in April.

The Panel for Educational Policy, which will have the final say on each school’s closure, has never voted down a DOE proposal. But last week the DOE withdrew a proposal to eliminate the sixth grade from a Bronx school after parent and community members protested.

Klein told reporters earlier this month that there was a chance that public feedback could change the minds of DOE officials. “These are well thought-through decisions, but I don’t foreclose the possibility based on what we hear that we’ll come to a different final decision,” he said.

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.”