sounding the alarm

Mayor: layoff threat "more realistic" this year than ever before

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that his threats to cut more than 6,100 teaching positions — including over 4,600 through layoffs — should be taken more seriously than ever before, and the city will have to fight to avoid even more cuts across city agencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget reduces state aid to New York City schools by $1.4 billion, and the city schools system is also facing the end of $850 million in federal stimulus funds. To negate those cuts, the city has moved $1.86 billion in city funds to the Department of Education since June, Bloomberg said today.

But overall city expenses are still rising enough to necessitate the cuts in teaching positions, which were originally projected in the city’s preliminary budget outlined in November, the mayor argued.

Teachers union President Michael Mulgrew said that the mayor’s layoff proposal was “more and more bizarre,” given the increase in city revenue going to fill in gaps in DOE funding and the Cuomo administration’s claims that state cuts should not mean local layoffs.

“We’ve already lost nearly 5,000 teachers to attrition in the last two years, and class sizes are skyrocketing across the city,” Mulgrew said. “It’s time the Mayor joined us in fighting for the children of our city by supporting the extension of the state millionaire’s tax, rather than continuing to focus, as he and Chancellor Black did in Albany this week, on a bogus strategy to lay teachers off.”

The mayor’s budget proposal is based on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget, and both budgets are far from finalized. State legislators have a spring deadline to pass a budget, and the city’s deadline is in June. For the past several years, city officials have suggested that teacher layoffs were the only way to close budget gaps, only to find other ways to cover holes.

But Bloomberg said today that because city funds are covering much larger gaps this year, layoff threats are “more realistic” than in years past.

As the threat of teacher layoffs has loomed in recent weeks, Bloomberg and Black have ramped up their campaign against the state law that requires the most recently hired teachers to be laid off first; instead, they want layoffs to be conducted on the basis of merit.

A big question mark in the city’s plan has been how officials would define merit if the seniority-based layoffs were abolished. The state recently overhauled its teacher evaluation law, but those changes will not be in place in time to use if layoffs happened this year.

Bloomberg and Black have argued the city should start by laying off the roughly 1,800 teachers whose principals rated them unsatisfactory last year and the roughly 1,200 teachers currently in the absent teacher reserve, which means they lack full-time faculty positions in schools.

The mayor’s plan would lay off an additional 1,600 teachers who don’t fall into either of those categories, in addition to the positions lost through attrition. For the first time today, Black suggested that the next step would be to fire teachers who have racked up a large number of unexcused absences. Her remarks echo recommendations made earlier this week by the group Educators 4 Excellence, who have been campaigning against seniority-based layoffs with the support of some of Bloomberg’s political allies.

“There is a place to start,” Black said.

The DOE couldn’t confirm today how many teachers with many unexcused absences are currently working in the system. Earlier this week, city officials said that 7.1 percent of the city’s roughly 80,000 teachers took more than 16 absences last school year, but could not say how many of those teachers’ absences were excused.

Black also said the department had not yet analyzed precisely how the loss of more than 6,100 teaching positions would impact classrooms, though she acknowledged that classes in the city will almost certainly get bigger.

The chancellor argued that eliminating the seniority-based layoff system would help mitigate the impact of layoffs to the classroom directly, because teachers in the absent teacher reserve pool are not in the classroom now. In fact, many teachers in the reserve pool do work in classrooms as substitutes, and some are given full class loads, though the exact numbers of ATRs working in schools has been difficult to obtain.

Even with the layoffs, the spending plan that Bloomberg presented this afternoon also relies on $600 million in state support that Albany has not yet committed to providing. The city is asking for $200 million more in education aid and changes to the state’s revenue sharing plan and fund for retired police and fire department employees that would yield an additional $400 million.

If state legislators don’t provide the additional funds, however, the overall city budget may be cut again to make up for the shortfall. That potential cut would be spread across all city agencies and would likely affect DOE spending but not necessarily increase the number of layoffs, Bloomberg said.

“I think it will be a struggle to get the $600 million to fill in the deficit,” the mayor said, arguing that the city was even less likely to receive more state funding to mitigate layoffs.

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black said that although she would continue to advocate for more education funding, she believed layoffs will happen this year. “I think we have seen the reality of it laid out today,” Black said.

Read the mayor’s financial plan summary for next year here.

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.”