land of nod

What's going on before, during, and after the UFT endorsement

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The UFT printed campaign posters for all major mayoral candidates in advance of today’s meetings to endorse a candidate, so that materials are ready as soon as the choice is made. The union posted the photo to Twitter on Monday.

For education voters, the mayoral campaign season has been building in large part to today, when the United Federation of Teachers will announce which candidate it is supporting.

But the decision, which will come out around 5:45 p.m. today, hardly ends the education election. Instead, it simply opens a new phase, one in which education policy’s prominence is far from assured.

Until now

From the time that campaign season kicked off so many moons ago, all of the Democratic candidates have been careful not to alienate the UFT. While the union’s picks don’t always win — as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out on Monday, it hasn’t backed a winning mayoral candidate in over two decades — the UFT endorsement does confer money, cachet, and bodies to fuel a ground game that will be essential in the coming months.

Even candidates seen as unlikely to win the union’s support, such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose help letting Bloomberg suspend term limits four years ago put her at a sharp disadvantage, were careful to infuse their education platforms with union-friendly positions. And all of the candidates who attended a forum the union held at its annual spring conference were effusive in their praise.

In recent weeks, though, only Thompson and de Blasio — and, to a lesser extent, Comptroller John Liu, whose campaign has been hamstrung by scandal — have actively seemed to be angling for the nod. When the city announced new graduation rates on Monday, they were the only candidates to release statements, all criticizing the Bloomberg administration for not helping students more. Thompson announced that he would guarantee at $200 a year to every teacher for discretionary materials, something the union has long sought. And de Blasio was the only candidate to stand beside Mulgrew at a press conference announcing a platform for reducing the city’s emphasis on standardized testing.

In de Blasio, the union would get a candidate with liberal bonafides and the chance to consolidate some the labor movement’s support. But with Thompson, it would be choosing a conciliator with education credentials who is seen as having a strong chance of becoming mayor.

What happens today

The union wants to advance a policy agenda that matches its vision for education and benefits its members. But even more than that, it wants to support a winner in November’s election, breaking a three-decade cycle of failure and ensuring that City Hall’s occupant feels beholden to the union. That’s why — even though, in a show of openness, the union has printed campaign posters for all major candidates — it would be a real surprise if anyone other Thompson ends the day with the union’s support.

But even though the decision appears to have been made, there is still a process the union must go through to make the choice official. That process includes some room for union members to express dissent, and their voices could be quite strong.

The union is using the same process that it goes through whenever it makes major policy decisions. First, Mulgrew will tell his closest advisors which candidate is his favorite. They’ll recommend the choice to the union’s 89-member Executive Board, which includes some representatives of minority parties within the union. Then the Executive Board’s recommendation will go to the 3,400-member Delegate Assembly for a floor vote, in which delegates from each school and chapter will hold up cards to signal whether they support the recommendation. Advocates and, potentially, opponents of the decision will make their cases until a majority of delegates support the resolution.

The union anticipates this process going quickly. The three meetings are scheduled back to back to prevent news from leaking before the end of the day. The Delegate Assembly meeting is scheduled for 4:45 p.m., and a decision is expected about an hour later, union officials said.

One reason the union can expect quick support for its leadership’s recommendation is that a strong majority of delegates are affiliated with Unity, Mulgrew’s party within the union. But a sizable number are not, suggesting that debate could be fierce if Mulgrew allows it to be. Some members are unhappy with Thompson’s relationship with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who helped engineer the state’s new teacher evaluation rules, and the fact that he has cozied up to charter school supporters even as he has worked to woo the union. In borough forums, de Blasio and Liu, seen as more left-wing candidates, received widespread support.

When the principals union voted to endorse Thompson on Tuesday, it did so with just 40 percent of the executive board behind him. President Ernest Logan suggested that while Thompson had garnered twice as many votes as the next closest candidates, at least four candidates had received wide support. The UFT has a stronger infrastructure for managing dissent and it won’t be tallying support for runners up, so it’s unlikely that the numbers will end up being quite so divided. But what happens inside 52 Broadway today is worth watching.

Not an end but a beginning

A divided union UFT would undermine one of the union’s chief goals in endorsing a candidate, which is to reassert its might in the city’s political ecosystem. According to a story in today’s New York Times, Mulgrew has devoted himself since first becoming president four years ago to bolstering the union’s political machine, once seen as capable of delivering candidates with ease.

That machine has a sizable war chest to help the endorsed candidate pay for campaign ads, including some that could potentially tilt the race into more negative territory. The machine should also have no trouble coming through with volunteers to make phone calls for the winning candidate and support his (or her) ground game. The union’s strong cadre of retired teachers in particular — known as the “daytime union” because they can step up when active members are at work — are notable for being willing to do what they are asked to.

But many retirees do not live in the city, and many current teachers do not, either. Combined with the fact that not all members will fall into line with the UFT’s pick, exactly how many votes the union will deliver in September’s primary and then in November’s general election is unclear.

What happens tomorrow, and for the next two and a half months until the primary election, could make the difference. It could be that the candidates begin to differentiate themselves more strongly on education, without the prospect of UFT support keeping them close to the union line. It could also be that they stop talking about education at all as they try to win over new constituencies. Candidates also have a reason to distance themselves from the union if they aren’t receiving its support. In office, a new mayor will have to weigh all of the city’s interests each time they sit down to bargain a single union’s contract. The high costs of health care and back pay, which the UFT wants, could be hard to deliver.

One role the union’s pick will play is to make sure that issues that are important to teachers do not fall off the radar, and to entice other candidates into making commitments that the union would like them to make. Mulgrew believes he can deliver this election, but he surely won’t mind insurance.

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.”