Facing new rules, a for-profit charter school company evolves

The city’s most established for-profit charter school management company is rebranding and recreating itself in light of a new law that forbids the group from running schools.

As of tomorrow, Victory Schools will be named Victory Education Partners and it will no longer be a traditional management company. The group will retain its for-profit status, but will continue to work in schools by offering a variety of services, from professional development to back-office support, that schools can choose to purchase.

The change was prompted by the passage of a new law last spring that doubled the cap on charter schools, and also barred for-profit companies from operating or managing new charter schools. One of three for-profit charter management groups work with New York City schools, Victory had to change or close shop in the city. It’s choosing to change.

Since 1999, Victory has managed 13 New York charter schools and it continues to run seven of them in the city, with an additional two in New York State. Most of them began when community or church groups discovered the charter management company and signed five-year contracts for services that came as one package. A contract with Victory meant the company would oversee everything from professional development to payroll.

Under the new law, Victory can continue to manage these schools — Stovall calls them his “legacy clients” — but it can’t open new ones in New York. In other cities where Victory works, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, it can continue to run schools.

But in New York, the company is evolving in accordance with the new law.

“Going forward, we are unbundling our services,” said James Stovall, who become Victory’s CEO in June. Instead of hiring Victory for all of their management and instructional services, schools will be able to pick and choose from a menu.

“So if a school wants to hire us to provide just leadership coaching, they can do that,” Stovall said. “If a school wants to hire us to provide their accounting and finance functions, they can do that.”

In addition to allowing schools to pick from a menu of services, Stovall said the company wants to get involved in turnaround schools. In the next year, New York City may begin closing as many as 47 schools, and the Department of Education is likely to replace some of them with charter schools that could buy services from Victory.

The new law that bars for-profit companies from managing charter schools is vague about precisely how involved a company can be before it crosses the line into management. One problem Victory may face is how to define that line.

“I’ve heard tossed around that well, as long as you stay below 50 percent of a school’s total number of outside vendor services, you’re safe,” Stovall said.

Executive Director of SUNY’s Charter School Institute Jonas Chartock said the charter school authorizer would look at a variety of factors to decide whether a for-profit company was overstepping the law’s bounds.

“We would not view the provision of back office services only (payroll, benefits management, accounting,
etc.) to be a violation,” he wrote in an email.

“At the other end of the spectrum, a full-service, sweep contract where the management provider receives all funds after expenses certainly would violate the law,” he said. Chartock said that SUNY would also look at how much of a school’s per pupil funding was going to pay a vendor’s fees.

“Anything over 8-10 percent would be worthy of further review and look like a more traditional management model, whereas a 3-5 percent fee would be more typical of a back-office only arrangement,” he wrote.

Established in 1999, Victory has had a mixed record in New York City. While some of the schools it helped start, like the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts, have earned top grades on the annual progress reports, others are struggling. The Sisulu-Walker Charter School — the first school Victory opened — went from an A last year to landing on the list of the 15 lowest performing elementary and public schools this year.

Victory has been targeted by the city’s teachers union for how much it charges schools. An analysis by Kim Gittleson showed that Victory charges schools an average of 17 percent of their per-pupil funding, or about $2,000 per student. Non-profit management groups charge their schools an average of 7 percent of their per-pupil funding, or about $1000 per student. According to Victory officials, their company charges more because it offers more support to its schools.

The union has made inroads at three Victory-run schools, where teachers voted to unionize after relations between’s the schools’ administration and staff broken down.

List of schools Victory manages:


New World Preparatory (Staten Island), Merrick Academy (Queens), Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (Bronx), New Hope Academy (Brooklyn), New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries (Bronx), Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem (Manhattan), South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts (Bronx)

New York State:

Academy Charter School (Hempstead), Charter School of Educational Excellence (Yonkers)

Victory also helps several non-charter high schools and advises their principals. Those schools are:

August Martin High School
Herbert Lehman High School
High School for Media and Communications in Manhattan
High School for Law and Public Policy in Manhattan

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.”