toxic debate

New salvos in light fixture war between UFT and Eva Moskowitz

Parents and lawyers filed suit last year against Cobble Hill Success Academy, which the city now says replaced light fixtures in its shared building last summer without city permission.

Tension between the teachers union and Success Academy Charter Schools operator Eva Moskowitz reached a new high — or low — today, with each side accusing the other of jeopardizing children’s safety.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Moskowitz had violated city construction rules, while Moskowitz connected the behavior of union workers to December’s devastating school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

The charged rhetoric stems from a dispute over light fixtures in the Brooklyn building that Success Academy shares with three other schools. Last week, the UFT joined Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a mayoral candidate, in calling for an investigation into how Success Academy’s Cobble Hill school was rid of light fixtures containing toxic PCBs while the other schools in the building continued to have the lights. De Blasio alleged that the department had given Moskowitz’s school preferential treatment.

As it turns out, de Blasio was wrong. The department did not remove the lights from Success Academy’s portion of the building — Success Academy simply had the lights removed in the course of other renovations, without the city’s approval.  (Moskowitz has said before that a benefit of running a charter school is that she has to pass through less red tape to get the light bulbs she likes.)

That happened over the summer and triggered concern that asbestos or other dangerous chemicals might have been disturbed, according to department officials.

“We have spoken with the Success Charter Network about its contractor completing work that was not approved and will increase monitoring of their projects,” a department spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg, said today.

In a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott today, Mulgrew said the department’s explanations of what had happened in the building were not adequate. The Division of School Facilities “apparently does not know how the demolition material was handled or where the fixtures were disposed,” he wrote, amid a list of concerns about whether the renovations had been done safely.

Success Academy officials would not say what kind of permits, if any, they had obtained before having 40 light fixtures replaced over a weekend in the summer of 2012. But Moskowitz said in a statement that concerns about safety were unwarranted.

“The quality of work was done to the highest standards and with the highest level of professionalism,” she said. “No child was put in harm’s way.”

Instead, Moskowitz accused Mulgrew of putting children at risk by allowing union employees to take photographs inside Success Academy’s basement space during the school day on Tuesday. In a letter to Mulgrew, she wrote, “Given the heightened concerns around safety in schools in light of recent violent events, it is unconscionable that the UFT would deliberately violate our school’s security by sending unauthorized strangers to prowl our hallways.”

Ellie Engler, a UFT official, said she and two colleagues had finished a meeting with Division of School Facilities officials on Tuesday when they walked through Success Academy on the way to space that the charter school shares with other schools in its building. When she saw, through an open classroom door, a flush-mounted light fixture — one that would not have PCBs — where she expected to see the old-style hanging fixture, she took a picture with her iPhone, she said.

Moskowitz said Mulgrew’s letter to Walcott was designed to distract from that episode. “Mike Mulgrew is trying to dodge the fact that in the wake of the Newtown shootings that he is endangering children’s welfare by directing his operatives to sneak into schools,” she said.

Success Academy also released a statement from a parent, Natilee McSween, that hammered home the point.

“After what happened in Newtown, how can the UFT put politics ahead of the safety of my child? I am furious that the UFT snuck into the school and put my child’s safety at risk,” said Natilee McSween. “The city needs to hold the UFT accountable.”

Moskowitz has called on Special Commissioner of Investigation Richard Condon to look into the UFT’s entry into her school’s space. And the UFT has asked Condon to investigate whether the city gives Moskowitz special treatment.

Meanwhile, the rest of the building is scheduled to be cleared of PCBs over the summer — just as Moskowitz opens schools in six additional Department of Education buildings.

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”