mayoral (mind) control

New coalition aims to sway 2013 race using education research

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer spoke at a January press conference on school closures that drew four mayoral contenders, including him.

Not satisfied with simply railing against the Bloomberg administration’s education policies in the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral election, more than 20 community and advocacy groups have formed a coalition to urge a different path.

And if the coalition, called A+ NYC, is successful, that path will be lined with education research.

A+ NYC is the latest entrant into a crowded field of education advocates aiming to influence the mayoral election. It is driven by many of the same advocacy groups that just four months ago signed on to New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which aims to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s schools policies.

But organizers of both coalitions say they have very different strategies. Participants in A+ NYC say their coalition doesn’t share the blanket opposition to his education policies that New Yorkers for Great Public Schools proclaimed when it announced itself in May. Instead, they say, the new coalition is about policy, not politics.

“I think that this coalition is not focused on Bloomberg at all,” said Megan Hester, a coordinator for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which supports the Coalition for Educational Justice. “It’s focused on what we want from the next mayor.”

Hester said A+ NYC, which convened for the first time last week, would focus on compiling education research to share with candidates as they develop their platforms. Eventually, she said, A+ NYC would establish its own policy recommendations and push candidates to adopt similar positions.

Education platforms have been hard to come by from the candidates so far. Bill Thompson has called for an end to school closures; Bill de Blasio said he’d cede some mayoral control to the Panel for Educational Policy; and Christine Quinn has said she’s a supporter of Bloomberg’s rent-free charter school co-location policies.

But put together, the six Democratic mayoral candidates have offered little indication about how they will ultimately govern the public school system if they are elected.

That’s because it has been a politically safe bet for candidates to spend more time bashing Bloomberg, whose popularity on education has withered in recent years, than talking about what they support.

And that’s largely the approach that the union-backed New Yorkers for Great Public Schools adopted when it launched as a direct response to the formation of StudentsFirstNY, a group that supports many policies that the teachers union typically opposes. To make sure that those policies — which include tenure reform, school closures, and more charter schools — do not pick up momentum in the next administration, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools plans to focus on political operations, such as voter registration drives and advertisements.

“We’re going to make sure the StudentsFirst New York agenda won’t become the agenda of New York City,” said Jon Kest, executive director of New York Communities for Change and a head organizer for the coalition. “We’re not advocating a specific policy agenda other than that the last 10 years have been an abject failure.”

The attitude has isolated some education advocates who hoped for a more proactive, forward-looking approach.

“There was no substance,” said Noah Gotbaum, a parent leader and candidate for public advocate who was briefed on New Yorkers for Great Public Schools’ plans earlier this year. Gotbaum said he considered himself part of the coalition and  supported its goals, but declined to sign its pledge. “There wasn’t really a discussion about what people wanted the coalition to stand for.”

Indeed, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools hasn’t gained steam since its arrival on the scene. Its social media pages have been dormant for months, and its online pledge list has attracted only about 100 signatures, a far cry from the 100,000 that its website says is the group’s goal. Kest said he expected more pledges to come as a result of union organizing efforts.

And even education leaders on the other side of the aisle have agreed that the conversation is growing old. Last month, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz derided some candidates for not speaking with conviction on education.

Mark Winston Griffith, of the Brooklyn Movement Center, said he shared Gotbaum’s and Moskowitz’s concerns.

“I don’t want to be defined by what we’re against,” said Winston-Griffith, who is a member of the A+ coalition. “I want to be defined about what we’re for.”

That’s where organizers for A+ NYC believe they fit in.

Many of the coalition’s members are traditional opponents of Bloomberg and his education policies. The Alliance for Quality Education, New York Communities for Change, and New York’s chapter of the NAACP have received financial support from the teachers union and been a regular presence at school closure and charter school co-location protests in recent years.

But Hester said the policy recommendations that ultimately come out of the A+ NYC coalition won’t necessarily reflect an anti-Bloomberg line or a pro-union line.

“We’re really just trying to focus the conversation on research on what actually works,” she said.

But a hint of ideology can be found in early recruiting fliers that were sent out by A+ NYC to advocacy groups this summer. A one-page fact sheet describing the coalition uses much of the same language employed by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools to denounce StudentsFirstNY.

“Already a handful of wealthy individuals have joined together to pledge $50 million to stay the current course, dominate the public debate, and define the politics of education in our city,” reads the sheet, which Hester said was sent out in error.

The A+ coalition has laid out an ambitious agenda for the next six months. Reporters weren’t invited to attend last week’s meeting, but organizers and meeting attendees shared planning documents with GothamSchools that provided more insight about their activities.

The group plans to create a “policy clearinghouse” website where it will publish research summaries on more than 20 education topics. Hester said mayoral control would not be among the topics.

Eventually the coalition will begin meeting with candidates’ staff, host dozens of town halls across the city, and train parents to spread the word about its policy recommendations in local communities.

And even if its means are different from that of New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, the end goal for A+ NYC is still the same, according to its fact sheet, which was sent to advocacy groups recruiting them to join: “By election season, A+NYC will have the power to influence the education agenda of all major mayoral candidates.”

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.”