don't blink

Test-prep, survey costs spark discussion at brief PEP meeting

The August Panel for Educational Policy meeting lasted just over a half-hour at Tweed, the Department of Education headquarters.

The focus of discussion at yesterday’s record short Panel for Educational Policy’s meeting was a contract not even up for a vote. That contract would have allocated close to $4 million toward printing and distributing the school environment surveys to students and parents, half of whom skip filling them out.

The agenda item was quietly removed from the slate of contracts, which included special education services, test-preparatory software, and gasoline for the Department of Education’s car fleet, after Queens representative Dmytro Fedkowskyj grilled officials about it at a Monday evening contracts meeting.

“I think that it’s an enormous amount of money to spend to push paper around,” he said again during the panel meeting, which lasted just 35 minutes. “I’m hopeful that we’ll have another robust conversation about this again under hopefully different terms.”

Officials said the paper survey distribution system would help boost participation rates, which for students are around 82 percent, and for parents have steadily increased from 26 to 53 percent since 2007. The city uses the survey results to assess school performance on the annual progress reports and sometimes to justify school closure plans.

David Ross, the department’s head of contracting, did not explain why the contract was removed at the eleventh hour, but noted that it did not “need to move” this month. It’s possible that the contract would not have won approval this month anyway if it failed to receive enough votes from the panel, which was short two mayoral appointees yesterday evening. The panel has never rejected a city proposal, but in March it had to table a contract because several members could not cast impartial votes.

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative to the panel, said he would like to see a more economical proposal that did not involve sending reams of paper to parents. But officials said the contract was not likely to change between now and this fall, when it will likely be brought up for a vote.

“I already wasn’t going to vote for it,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan also led a quick back-and-forth with officials over a $350,000 contract that would purchase software for elementary and middle school test preparation.

“Why do we need test-prep software? Why do we need test-prep at all?” he said. “There’s already a whole battery of assessments, interim assessments, predictive assessments and what not. I don’t understand why in this environment, when we don’t have enough money to pay teachers and class sizes are up, we have to spend money to do test prep.”

Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky responded flatly that, “we’re certainly not encouraging schools to spend more time or money on test prep.” Rather, he said, the contract served to give schools the option to use software programs to support the work they’re already doing to align their reading and math curricula to the Common Core State Standards, and prepare for new state tests that will cover those standards.

Even with four panel members absent (mayoral appointees Rosemarie Maldonado and Ian Shapiro, and Brooklyn representative Gbubemi Okotieuro and Staten Island representative Diane Peruggia), all of the contracts were quickly approved.

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.”