frozen assets

Judge blocks Cuomo's $250M penalty on city schools, for now

Gov. Andrew Cuomo won’t be able to penalize New York City for failing to adopt teacher evaluations while a lawsuit against the penalty makes its way through the courts, a State Supreme Court judge ruled today.

The judge said Cuomo’s latest ultimatum — that the city adopt a system or have one imposed — proved that a financial penalty was not the only way to motivate districts to adopt new evaluations.

Cuomo announced last year that he would withhold increases in state school aid from districts that did not adopt new teacher evaluation systems by Jan. 17. New York City missed the deadline, and Cuomo said he would take back $250 million from the city’s schools.

But parents and advocates of equitable school funding sued, and a judge today issued an injunction against the penalty, at least until he has had more time to consider the merits of the lawsuit.

City officials praised the ruling, as did other advocates of teacher evaluations who have usually supported Cuomo’s efforts to strong-arm districts into adopting new evaluation systems.

“We’ve said all along that students should not be penalized for the UFT’s failure to negotiate, and our goal has been and continues to be a fair and effective evaluation system,” said Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson.

UFT officials declined to comment immediately but said they were reviewing the decision.

Cuomo’s office plans to appeal the ruling, according to a spokesman. The State Education Department — whose commissioner, John King, is also named in the lawsuit — declined to comment on the ruling.

To win a temporary injunction at the outset of a lawsuit, plaintiffs have to prove that allowing a process to continue while litigation is underway would cause “irreparable harm.” They also have to convince the judge that they are likely to win the case in the end.

Those requirements are why lawyers for the state and for the parents wrangled over the value of $250 million to the city’s schools , during a hearing last week. Michael Rebell, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, argued that the penalty violated students’ right to a sound basic education, which the state’s school aid formula is meant to support. But lawyers for the state argued that the size of the penalty — 4 percent of the city’s schools budget — would barely make a dent in students’ educational experiences.

Judge Manuel Mendez sided with Rebell and the parents. “Innocent students that had no influence over the legislative process or [teacher evaluation] negotiations were potentially placed at risk academically,” he wrote in his decision.

Mendez also used Cuomo’s latest strategy to get the city to adopt new teacher evaluations — seeking the right to let King impose an evaluation system if one is not agreed upon by June 1 — as evidence against the governor. Cuomo has said one reason to impose an evaluation system is to make sure the state’s federal Race to the Top funds, which were contingent on new evaluations, are not threatened.

“There are alternative means of achieving [evaluation] goals while preserving federal RTTT grant funds without the long term effects of financial sanctions on students,” Mendez wrote.

“While this is only the first round in what may be a long fight, we remain hopeful that the funds will be permanently returned to the students and teachers who need them,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of Educators 4 Excellence, which has strongly supported Cuomo’s push for new evaluations.

Another supporter of new evaluations, Mona Davids, founder of the New York City Parents Union, said the ruling was a vindication of parents’ ability to stand up for students.

“It’s important because parents stood up on our own and fought against the governor and have at this point stopped him from punishing our kids for the failure of the city and teachers union to reach an evaluations agreement,” said Davids, who was one of several parents to join the suit. Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s education committee, is also a plaintiff.

Mendez’s ruling in favor of an injunction is below.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede