please sir

NYC teacher discipline model praised, but Walcott seeks change

The city needs changes in state law to speed and ease teacher firing procedures, Chancellor Dennis Walcott told members of the State Senate in Albany today. He asked legislators to change who judges teacher discipline cases and also the legal standard those cases must meet.

Yet the city’s rules are actually the toughest in the state and in many ways are a model for reform, state and union officials told the senators during a hearing on the state’s 3020-a process, the legal process that governs the discipline of tenured teachers. Districts that want to terminate a tenured teacher must prove their case in a 3020-a hearing.

The hearings process has long been seen as unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive. Statewide, cases routinely take as long as two years to be resolved and some principals choose not to bring cases against teachers rather than have to take on the long and burdensome 3020-a process, senators said.

“I really haven’t met anyone who thinks it’s going swimmingly,” said State Sen. John Flanagan, who convened the hearing.

Until recently, New York City was a case study for how 3020-a hearings could drag on. By last summer, the city was paying more than 700 teachers under investigation to report each day to “rubber rooms.” But after Mayor Bloomberg turned his attention to the rubber rooms, the city and teachers union reached an agreement to close them by speeding up the hearing schedule, paying neutral arbitrators to work more days, and rotating cases randomly among the arbitrators.

The backlog was cleared of all but 16 cases in just four months, by the end of 2010, and the accelerated timeline remains in place.

Valerie Grey, the State Education Department’s chief operating officer, cited New York City’s experience to prove that the timeline set forth in the current 3020-a regulations, which suggests five months from when a teacher is charged to when his or her case is resolved, is reasonable.

“New York City did it in four months,” Grey said. “It can be done.”

But Walcott said today that additional changes would streamline the hearing process further. “Even with that resolution 3020-a remains a cumbersome process,” he said. “We need a system that is fair, cost-effective, speedy, and the results are consistent.”

Describing two teachers who faced similar charges but received different penalties after two different arbitrators heard their cases, Walcott focused his proposals for change on a desire for more consistent outcomes of teacher discipline trials. The best way to improve consistency, he said, would be for the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings to take over 3020-a hearings from the independent arbitrators. OATH currently decides disciplinary cases against employees of other city departments, as well as MTA employees. With a salaried, full-time set of lawyers judging teacher discipline cases, costs would be contained and a uniform standard for judgement could be applied, Walcott said.

City officials have long pushed OATH in discussions with the union, United Federation of Teachers spokesman Dick Riley said. A DOE spokeswoman, Barbara Morgan, declined to comment, saying that negotiations with the union are confidential.

The union will not accept using OATH officers instead of impartial hearing offers, testified Carol Gerstel, the UFT’s chief counsel.

“We don’t think that hearing officers who are employees of the City of New York are ones that our members would feel comfortable that they were getting an impartial decision,” she said. “We think that a fair and expeditious process can be had using impartial arbitrators — hearing officers — as we are doing in the city right now.”

Walcott also asked lawmakers to change the law so that instead of the city having to prove it has “just cause” to remove a teacher, teachers would have to prove that their discipline was “arbitrary and capricious.” The city included this change in a list of contract demands that was leaked last year.

“He would get consistent decisions, because everybody would get terminated because the people who are bringing the charges will be upheld unless they are arbitrary and capricious — a very difficult standard to reach,” Gerstel 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.”