scrambling to the deadline

Race to the Race to the Top: Live-blogging Albany's debate

With just hours before the state’s Race to the Top application is due in Washington, legislators in Albany are scrambling to deal with the cap on charter schools, considered a make-or-break component of the application. Anna will be sending updates from Albany today.

6 p.m. Now the city stakeholders are weighing in. Here’s the response from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in recent days launched a strong public relations offensive against Sampson and Silver’s bill:

“Sadly, some 36,000 New York City students on waiting lists for charter schools – and thousands more who need and deserve better educational choices – were told today to wait longer, because help is not on the way. The Governor proposed a bill that would create options for those children and help the State win $700 million in federal money. It was the only bill that had the support of a majority of Senators, yet the Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly defeated it without even a vote – on the same day the Governor’s budget presented a $1 billion cut to school aid statewide. While others played Russian roulette with our children’s futures, great credit is due to Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, the members of his conference, and Democratic Senator Craig Johnson – the sponsor of the Governor’s bill – who fought to make New York’s Race to the Top application as strong as possible. And while I rarely hesitate to speak my mind when I disagree with someone, I also try to give credit where it is due and want to thank Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. for his help on this important issue. Our children and their parents are owed a second chance from the Legislature. They deserve nothing less.”

And here’s the response from city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew. The UFT issued a report earlier this month on how charter schools serve the city’s neediest students, and many of its recommendations were echoed in the legislature’s bill.

“New York State had a chance to address the glaring inequities in charter school admissions, to increase the transparency of charter operations and to force profiteers out of the charter business,” Mulgrew said. “But charter advocates and their allies resisted these desperately needed reforms, to the point where the Legislature was unable to act.”

5:45 p.m. Senate Republicans are signaling they will use the legislature’s failure to act today as a weapon against Democrats who run for re-election.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Governor’s legislation to enhance New York’s opportunity to secure federal education funds was not brought up for a vote in the Senate,” Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos said in a statement. “I’m confident it would have passed and strengthened the state’s application for the Race to the Top program.”

“Once again, when an important deadline was upon us and action was needed on an important issue, the Democrats in both houses were unable to act,” he said.

5:30 p.m. A side not heard much today from those who did not want to see the charter cap lifted at all. In that camp is Senator Bill Perkins, who says he’s concerned about “the charter wars” and the high concentration of charters in his Harlem district. Perkins said he didn’t believe lifting the cap was a prerequisite for a New York Race to the Top win.

5:00 p.m. Senators from both sides of the charter school divide are looking for a bright side in today’s debacle.

“In my opinion, nothing being done is better than a bad bill getting done,” Senator Craig Johnson said, echoing James Merriman. “The Silver bill would have been bad for education reform.”

Asked if not voting had hurt the state’s chances more than voting for the Silver bill, Johnson said, “the Silver bill would have hurt us even more. The governor’s bill would have been perfect.” (Johnson introduced the governor’s bill to the Senate last night.)

Like Johnson, Sampson said that “imprudent legislation” would have put the state at a competitive disadvantage in the federal competition. But he disagreed about which bill was imprudent — he favored the one he sponsored.

“The bill I sponsored with Assembly Speaker Silver would have maximized our eligibility for federal funds, while bringing greater transparency, accountability, and parental input to the charter school process,” Sampson said in a statement.

“We are working towards a bipartisan, bicameral solution today,” Sampson said. “We support the State Education Department’s application as it stands, and hope our federal officials can help us secure Phase One financing. If not, we will reapply for Phase Two, and try once again later this year to bridge the partisan divide to get New York’s school children the funding they need, and property taxpayers the relief they deserve.”

4:20 p.m. Today could have gone worse for charter school advocates, according to a statement just released by James Merriman, head of the NYC Charter School Center.

“While state lawmakers could not a pass a good reform bill today, we can be thankful they did not pass a disastrous one,” Merriman said. “Charter schools should commend Senate Republicans and Democratic Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, who stood up for public charter schools and stopped a bill that would have severely damaged the charter schools movement.”

4:00 p.m. Anna reports that the Senate is still in conference. Senators are preparing to end their session, a Senate source told Elizabeth Benjamin.

“There were people saying raise the cap and people saying don’t raise the cap, or do it with restrictions. We have to balance all these things out and we couldn’t achieve that in our conference,” a Senate official told Anna. The official said the Senate did not want the governor’s bill to come to the floor because the Assembly would not pass it.

Asked whether the Silver/Sampson bill was meant as a political hit on New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, the official said: “this was not an anti-Klein bill.”

3:40 p.m. And the Assembly has adjourned for the day, without taking action on either of the charter cap bills. It’s over, education committee chair Cathy Nolan confirms. Anna reports that no one is quite sure whether the Senate is still conferencing.

3:10 p.m. Anna reports that a rumor is spreading among legislators that the U.S. Department of Education extended the deadline. A USDOE spokesman, Justin Hamilton, said no, it’s not true.

3:00 p.m. The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that fights for equitable funding for schools across the state, just sent out a statement criticizing charter school advocates for blocking the Sampson/Silver bill.

“The charter cap bill has stalled because apparently it is more important to the charter school industry to keep accountability, transparency, and meaningful parent and community input out of charter schools than it is to have New York State compete effectively for $700 million in federal Race to the Top funding,” the statement reads.

2:55 p.m. Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch told me today that if the legislature fails to vote to raise the charter cap today, it would be a “serious black mark” on the state’s Race to the Top application. Her view contrasts with that of the city and charter school advocates, who argue that passing the Sampson/Silver bill would be worse than doing nothing at all.

When I spoke to her this morning, Tisch expressed optimism that legislators would raise the cap today. Otherwise, she said, they will have to answer to voters about a missed opportunity in a dismal budget year.

She also played up other elements of the state’s application, which include, among other things, significant changes to the way teachers are trained and certified.

“I think [NYSED has] articulated a bold strong application and when people in this state understand how good it is…they will be infuriated that this opportunity is slipping through their hands,” she said.

2:15 p.m. The New York Post says parents are angry about the Sampson/Silver bill, but Anna reports that there are no charter school parents or students present at the debate today. Charter advocates said they thought about bringing people, as they have to other hearings, but they already have a lobby day scheduled for February 2nd and there wasn’t time to rally the forces. As it stands, Anna reports, there’s no face to this issue in the building — either in favor of charter schools or opposed.

1:50 p.m. John Sampson is asking Sheldon Silver not to pass the bill in the Assembly unless there are enough votes for it to pass in the Senate, reports Elizabeth Benjamin at the Daily News.

1:45 p.m. I just checked in with Tom Dunn, NYSED’s spokesman, how the application was getting to Washington, D.C., where it is due in hard copy at 4:30. “We are completing the application and will deliver it,” he said. But no word yet on how it’s getting there.

1:35 p.m. Senate Republicans, who have also come out in support of the governor’s bill, apparently are planning to introduce an amendment from the Senate floor to substitute Paterson’s bill for Sampson and Silver’s. (Last night, the Republicans tried to bring Paterson’s bill to a vote and were ignored by Senate Democratic leaders.) Now it seems that Senate Democrats are looking for a way to avoid bringing the bill to the floor, rather than be embarrassed if a hostile amendment passes, Anna reports.

1:20 p.m. Walking into the room, Senate President Malcolm Smith was asked if he thought the Senate would bring the bill to a vote today, Anna reports. “I don’t know, I don’t think so,” he said.

1:10 p.m.: The fate of the charter cap fight appears to be resting with the State Senate.

The bill to raise the cap to 400, proposed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Majority Conference Leader John Sampson, faces much greater opposition in the Senate than it does in the Assembly. The Assembly appears likely to pass the bill this afternoon.

The key players are Senators Craig Johnson and Ruben Diaz, Sr, Anna reports. Both support the compromise bill that Governor Paterson introduced yesterday, which would lift the cap to 460 and ditch many of the provisions in Silver’s bill that charter advocates oppose. Johnson introduced the governor’s bill on the Senate floor, and Diaz issued a statement today calling on Sampson and Senate President Malcolm Smith to bring the governor’s bill to a vote.

A vote on the governor’s bill looks unlikely, though, so Johnson has just told charter advocates that he or Diaz may introduce a hostile amendment to the Silver/Sampson bill. The two senators are currently huddling with charter school advocates and Micah Lasher, the city Department of Education’s director of external affairs.

Charter school advocates are arguing that as far as the state’s Race to the Top application is concerned, no bill is preferable to the Silver/Sampson bill because the restrictions the bill places on charters would inhibit charter growth and cause the application to lose points. Silver has said he does not think the restrictions would harm the state’s application.

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.”