injunction function

In court, a debate over how much $250M matters to city schools

The outcome in the lawsuit to reclaim lost state aid for New York City schools will hinge largely on the argument of what scale of educational impact that sum could have on students.

If New York County Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez sides with attorney Michael Rebell, who is suing the state, he’ll agree that the lack of roughly $250 million will cause “irreparable harm” to students. If he sides with lawyers representing Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Education Commissioner John King, he’ll concur that the total is just a fraction of what the city spends annually on education, and therefore won’t do much more than put a dent in school budgets.

Rebell filed the lawsuit earlier this month after Cuomo said he would not seek to extend a deadline that awarded increased state aid only to districts that agreed to a teacher evaluation system. New York City was one of six districts that did not meet the deadline, which Cuomo signed into law last year to force districts and their unions to negotiate the controversial plans.

The two sides were in court today for the first time arguing over Rebell’s request for Mendez to issue an preliminary injunction, an early court order that requires the defendant to either proceed or cease with a specific action. In today’s case, the state is planning to withdraw the funds and Rebell wants Mendez to prevent the state from taking back the money while he is considering the case.

To win an injunction, Rebell needs to prove some key points. First, he has to show that the state aid cut is irreparably harmful to affected schools and students while the lawsuit is pending. Second, he needs to prove a high likelihood of ultimately winning the case.

In response to the sudden funding gap, the Department of Education is planning midyear cuts for March 1, Rebell said, making an injunction especially urgent. After the hearing, Rebell said he couldn’t predict where, specifically, irreparable harm would take place.

“We don’t know that yet,” Rebell said. “You got a huge hit on the whole city so it’s going to fall out on these kids. Exactly how? Who knows, but it’s going to be devastating.”

Rebell said he left out specific evidence of harm because he believed he had a good shot at winning the case. Previous court cases firmly established that state aid disbursements were constitutionally necessary for a student to receive a “sound basic education,” he said.

Cuomo’s lawyers argued today that increased state aid — they used a larger figure, $260 million — didn’t amount to much compared to the $7.9 billion that the city received from the state this year. They said that many cuts that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott have publicly forecast would not violate a student’s right to a “sound basic education.”

Rebell called the argument tenuous, saying that it was Cuomo who believed the amount was significant enough to dangle as an incentive for New York City and other districts to submit evaluation plans.

Arguing for the state, Assistant Attorney General Steven Schulman also said that harm from the lost aid was a relative drop in the bucket compared to what would happen if the state was unable to enforce the teacher evaluation law. Without new teacher evaluations, he said, the state would likely not be able to retain much of its $696 million Race to the Top grant. He also argued that the quality of education would suffer.

“There is no dispute here that annual performance reviews will improve education for students,” Schulman’s brief says.

In court, he said, the “grant is jeopardized by New York City’s failure to adopt a performance evaluation program.”

Mendez did not issue a ruling but told both side he would rule shortly.

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.”