lingering chemical concerns

Parents: New safety issues at school moved from toxic campus

Alan Gary criticizes how the Department of Education response to the discovery of toxins at P.S. 51 while son Nathanial, 11, left, an alumnus of the school, holds a sign that reads "Toxic, Keep Out"

Renewing criticism of how the Department of Education handled safety concerns at their former building, parents from P.S. 51 in the Bronx say their new site isn’t up to par, either.

That was the message that parents and community activists brought to Wednesday night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting at the Bronx High School for Business. At a press conference outside the meeting and during the shorter-than-usual meeting itself, they charged that the city still has not done enough to ensure safety for P.S. 51’s students and teachers.

The city relocated P.S. 51 in August after detecting dangerous levels of a cancer-causing chemical at the original school building. The city detected the toxic chemical in February but did not disclose the discovery to families until this summer.

“We demand that protocol be put in place to remove students from toxic sites immediately, not five or six months after a problem is discovered,” said Alan Gary, whose son, Nathanial, is a former P.S. 51 student. “We believe it’s the parents’ decision to decide whether or not to send their kids to a school. Dennis Walcott, how dare you? You took away the rights of parents to protect their children by not informing us.”

Parents at the press conference called on the DOE to register each student who was exposed to the chemical, called trichloroethylene or TCE, and monitor their medical conditions over time — something the teachers union has said it will do for teachers who worked in the building.

Kelly King-Lewis pulled her daughter, Saqirah, out of school at P.S. 51 in 2009 after the eight-year-old, who was six at the time, complained of headaches, a symptom of TCE exposure, “constantly,” and said she was organizing parents around their concerns because her eldest daughter spent six years at P.S. 51 before graduating in 2010. Now she is worried her daughters may suffer long-term health effects.

“We should have medical monitoring to or children because we don’t know if there is going to be a physical effect later on down the line,” she said.

She said she is concerned that a routine test found traces of another chemical, called perchloroethene, or PCE, in the new school building, which housed a Catholic school until this summer. Walcott said during the PEP meeting that the PCE readings were insignificant and likely caused by an open container that was later removed from the building.

But parents cited other concerns with the safety of their new site, which the city has leased from the Archdiocese of New York — namely that the building sports broken windows, leaky pipes, and fly infestations.

“There’s holes, there’s leaks in the pipes, in the lunch room and i’ve been told in the auditorium as well, where the students meet every day,” said Marisol Carrero, whose son is in third grade at P.S. 51.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Walcott said the DOE would fix any existing infrastructure problems at the school.

“if there are issues to be addressed like leaks and broken windows, we’ll take care of that,” he said.

He also said he would meet again with P.S. 51 parents, who charged during the meeting that he had not kept a promise to meet with them. Responding to comments at the PEP meeting, Walcott said he is “always” willing to meet with parents and would work to set a time for next week. He also said that he and other DOE officials met with P.S. 51 parents before the start of the school year. in August, Walcott apologized to an auditorium full of distressed families for the DOE’s slow response to the safety concern.

P.S. 51 isn’t the only school site that’s potentially dangerous, Jane Maisel, a former Bronx literacy coach, reminded the panel. She said the city is months behind on delivering a report about pollution at the Mott Haven Campus, which was recently built on the site of a former train yard that may have traces of coal tar.

“We don’t know if there’s pollution coming into the school, but we need to know it’s not,” she said.

The meeting, which was sparsely attended aside from P.S. 51 supporters, offered little suggestion of the controversial topics that typically crowd the panel’s agendas. While parents from P.S. 51 finished rallying outside, 15 young women from Start Strong Bronx, an organization that teaches students in eight middle schools about domestic violence, urged panel members to place a stronger focus on teen violence prevention in schools. The panel later unanimously approved regulations to address bullying and sexual harassment complaints in schools.

“i want to thank the community-based organization for testifying at this meeting and the last meeting,” Walcott told the Start Strong Bronx participants. “Your input has been invaluable in helping to shape the policy.”

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.”