ancient history

Quinn targets a de Blasio selling point: his record with parents

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As a school board member, public advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, pictured here with ex-state education commissioner David Steiner, once supported a superintendent who resigned amid charges of mismanagement.

Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign is unearthing an old education scandal to take aim at Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the current Democratic frontrunner in the race to replace Mayor Bloomberg.

In a press release, the Quinn campaign compiled news coverage about Frank DeStefano — the superintendent of Brooklyn’s District 15 in the late 1990s who ran up a $1.2 million budget deficit — to make the case that de Blasio, then a school board member, allowed the mismanagement to occur. The attack comes as the two are embroiled in bitter fighting over many issues, including the city’s support for local hospitals.

“What Bill de Blasio says and what Bill de Blasio does are two very different things,” Quinn spokesman Mike Morey said in a statement. “While he talks glowingly about his work on his local school board, parents in the district knew de Blasio was only concerned about what was best for Bill de Blasio.”

There’s no disputing that the scandal, which ended in the district superintendent’s resignation, was a difficult time for the school district where de Blasio got his start in city politics. When GothamSchools looked into the episode earlier this summer, de Blasio declined to speak about it, and his campaign did not respond to requests for comment today.

But the story is not as cut and dry as the Quinn campaign suggests.

The press clips that the campaign compiled rest heavily on one parent, Katia Kelly, whose two children attended P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens. The campaign did not speak to Kelly, she and Morey both confirmed. In the clips, Kelly said she had brought concerns about DeStefano to de Blasio, the school board’s liaison to P.S. 58, that he did not respond to.

Kelly, who would later butt heads with de Blasio over the city’s handling of pollution in the Gowanus canal, reprised her concerns earlier this summer in an interview with GothamSchools. She said she was part of a group of 10 parents from P.S. 58 who tried to get de Blasio to look into DeStefano’s mismanagement.

“He has this Clinton-esque way of listening to you that makes you feel like you have his full attention and then he doesn’t do anything about it,” Kelly said about de Blasio. (Kelly is not a United States citizen and cannot vote in the city’s election.)

But other school board members said that while the board’s chief responsibility was hiring and firing the superintendent, it did not have the power to investigate the superintendent’s spending. That power fell to the central Board of Education, then helmed by Bill Thompson, who is also running for mayor this year. Kelly and Pearl Lau, another parent in the group, said they also brought their concerns about DeStefano to Thompson and were also not satisfied with his response.

At one point, four of the nine local school board members sent a letter to then-Chancellor Harold Levy asking him to consider firing DeStefano. Neither Mark Peters, the school board president at the time, or de Blasio signed that letter, according to an October 2000 article in The New York Times. But Peters, who is now de Blasio’s campaign treasurer, told GothamSchools that he and de Blasio had indeed conveyed local concerns to the central board.

“It’s very possible that Mr. de Blasio made inquiries at school board meetings or in executive sessions that we’re not aware of,” Bob Zuckerberg told GothamSchools. Zuckerberg, who had been the district’s teachers union representative, added, “I always remember Bill being very responsive to things that were going on.”

Levy eventually launched an audit into DeStefano’s spending, but the superintendent resigned before it was complete. After a stint as a charter school principal upstate, DeStefano became the second in command of Baltimore’s schools, where he repeatedly ran into trouble.

After DeStefano resigned, de Blasio cited the incomplete audit as a reason that he had not withdrawn support for the embattled administrator.

“I was deeply concerned, but I was not going to make a final decision until I saw the evidence,” he told the Village Voice in 2001. “Both of my parents were victims of the McCarthy era. I do not take lightly the idea of ousting someone. You have to have the evidence.”

In the article, he also defended DeStefano, and said he was a “visionary and a great educator, but he was a horrible communicator.”

Other members of the board said that despite a mounting deficit and rumors that they passed along, they had not known about the scope of the DeStefano’s misspending until close to when he resigned.

“I don’t recall anybody raising with us any of the financial issues of the type that the central board was ultimately upset about,” said Peters, an attorney. “If they had, we would have looked at that.”

Another board member and attorney, Eddie Rodriguez, said, “I really do not recall parents coming to us and making allegations. … If we didn’t know, how would a parent have known?”

After two years on the school board, de Blasio ran for City Council, representing Community District 39, which includes many of the same neighborhoods of school District 15. In 2009, he was elected public advocate, where he quickly made parent engagement a central part of his agenda. In the process, he gained some staunch supporters among parents, a voting bloc that he hopes will help him become the first current public school parent to occupy City Hall in over half a century.

“From a parent perspective, he’s just done everything to engage parents to be transparent to parents and also give parents an avenue to be active,” said Natalie Green Giles, who met de Blasio when he aided her daughters’ Cobble Hill school in 2005. “Obviously he is a public school parent and you feel that in his approach. … When he talks about his ideas for reform you believe him.”

This year, de Blasio won an endorsement from the Educational Justice Political Action Committee, a coalition of parents and community activists.

“From advocating for a tax on our city’s wealthiest to pay for universal early education and after-school programs to calling for a moratorium on co-locations and school closures, Bill has stood by our students, teachers and parents from day one,” said Ocynthia Williams, a longtime parent activist who sits on EJPAC’s board.

Becoming mayor would allow de Blasio to advance those policies from a more powerful perch. It’s exactly what Kelly said she expected so many years ago when she attended District 15 school board meetings with de Blasio, where she said he routinely stepped out to take calls from Hillary Clinton, whose Senate campaign he was managing.

“We started getting a little bit peeved. We realized he was using this to further his own career because shortly afterward he declared his candidacy to become our City Council representative,” Kelly said.

Lau, another parent who dealt with de Blasio on District 15’s school board, said she had shared Kelly’s concerns.

“We were all under the impression that Bill was using our school board as a steppingstone,” Lau said. “That was a very uncomfortable feeling, [that] he was just trying to get his feet wet and build up his base for his next gig … and we were right.”

But she said she thought he fulfilled his charge as the liaison between the board and individual schools well enough anyway.

“Bill was very responsive,” Lau said. “I think he listened. I don’t know how much you can do when you’re a person on the school board.”

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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