good housekeeping

Civility First: A quest to keep our comments section kind

Our comments section is about to get a little bit nicer.

Our comments section has its moments of glory, instances of brave citizens discoursing civilly despite a national education debate dominated by divisive misconceptions.

But too often, it’s ugly down there. Too often, comments include personal attacks and deliberate deceptions.

And so we embark on a niceness campaign. Down the road, we are open to making more major changes, such as asking commenters to log in with a registered verified identity or creating a community policing system where other commenters can vote comments up or down a la Gawker.

Another idea is to change the structure so you can respond right underneath other readers’ postings and flag comments you find inappropriate. We hope you will share more ideas.

For now, we have drafted a recommended list of principles to govern our most basic (and, at present, only) moderation decision: Do we allow a comment to be published, or do we delete it? (Right now, given our editorial capacity, every comment that the WordPress computers don’t flag as possible spam is published immediately by default. For more on the spam catchers, see #4 below.)

Most of these principles we already follow in an ad hoc way, but we want to codify them. The list is below. Please share your feedback. Once we’ve got something we all like — or at least, most of us like — we’ll publish it permanently on the site.

Draft GothamSchools Community Policy

We encourage vigorous debate and welcome constructive criticism of our coverage. However, we do reserve the right to moderate these discussions and occasionally will delete comments that violate our community policy.

1. No obscenity, vulgarity, profanity, racism or sexism. If you think something might cross the line, it probably does. Disagreement with people’s arguments is fine, but personal attacks — including on other commenters and GothamSchools writers and editors — will not be tolerated. We tend to agree with Jon Stewart that Nazi analogies are rarely appropriate. We reserve the right to judge what crosses the line.

2. Do not impersonate a person you’re not and do not “sock-puppet.” This should not come as a surprise, but we can see your IP addresses and e-mails, so we know if you’re doing this. If you post as Cathie Black or Joel Klein, we will delete your comment unless we can verify that you are actually Cathie Black or Joel Klein. We follow this definition of “sock-puppeting” as the New York Times defined it: “the act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies or company.”

3. You’re welcome to post under a username that allows you to retain anonymity, but we encourage everyone to use their real names and e-mail addresses (which are not shared publicly). We feel the same way about this matter as does the New York Times, which writes in its comment policy: “We have found that people who use their names carry on more engaging, respectful conversations.”

4. To prevent the comment threads from filling up with spam, our site automatically places certain types of comments in moderation. If your comment includes more than two links or is over 300 words, chances are that our site will think it’s spam and one of us will have to approve it manually. If you post a comment like this in the middle of the night or on a weekend, please don’t fret if it’s not approved right away. We are probably asleep or otherwise engaged in our off-line lives.

5. If you have a correction or a criticism of our coverage, the fastest way to reach us is by email. We do read the comment threads (though often not immediately) and will occasionally respond, but commenting isn’t the most efficient way to get our attention.

6. Help us flag violations! If you believe that another commenter has violated our policy, the best way to let us know is — again — to send us an e-mail.

7. We very rarely block a reader from ever commenting, but sometimes we have no other means of maintaining civility. Should you take it upon yourself to violate the comment policy multiple times, we will contact you and ask you to stop. If you continue, we will block you.

8. Please DON’T POST IN ALL CAPS. Some sites will delete your comments if you do this and, while that seems a bit extreme to us, using all-caps does make you sound like a crazy person. Good spelling and grammar are also appreciated.

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.”