realpolitik

Charter backers reluctantly embrace idea of "Mayor de Blasio"

As public advocate, Bill de Blasio presented reports about how to improve the process through which schools are awarded space inside city-owned buildings. In 2011, de Blasio presented reforms to the co-location process, which has benefitted charter schools under Bloomberg.

Next week, thousands of parents will flood the Brooklyn Bridge to rally in support of the charter schools that their children attend. It’s an aggressive — and divisive — approach meant to send a message to Democrat and mayoral frontronner Bill de Blasio, who says he wants to slow the growth of charter schools and charge rent to the ones operating in city-owned buildings.

But a smaller group of school leaders and well-heeled charter backers are also taking a quieter approach in a hopeful attempt to seek influence with the Democratic mayoral nominee. Faced with increasing odds that de Blasio will be the next mayor — and the understanding that charter school parents are unlikely to support Republican Joe Lhota — they’re lining his pockets with campaign donations.

Some also attended a fundraiser Thursday to try to influence the likely mayor on education policy, which is being organized in part by Craig Johnson, a former Democratic state senator who now chairs the Democrats for Education Reform political action committee.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to begin a dialogue around all the issues affecting kids, including universal pre-kindergarten, co-location, and all those issues,” said Ian Rowe, CEO of Public Prep, a network that operates four charter schools in the city.

Rowe was among the charter school supporters at the de Blasio fundraiser. Organizer Johnson, who worked with de Blasio on John Edwards’ 2004 presidential campaign, is among the names listed atop a fundraising invitation to the event, hosted by Martin Scheinman, a lawyer and contract arbitrator.

Other supporters, such as Public Prep chairman Bryan Lawrence, already opened their wallets to de Blasio at Johnson’s request. The reluctant embrace comes despite ongoing suspicions that de Blasio’s plans for education could hurt the charter sector.

“He says he wants to make the city better,” said Lawrence, who said he donated $4,950 to de Blasio, the maximum allowed for individuals under the city’s campaign finance laws. “And if he’s elected, we’re looking forward to working with him on how to do that.”

Lawrence said the donation isn’t a signal that de Blasio had earned his vote just yet. Last month, Lawrence gave $2,500 to Lhota’s campaign, and he said he is eager to learn more about both candidates’ education plans.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how both of them approach improving the public school system,” Lawrence said.

Paul Appelbaum, who along with Lawrence sits on the board of Families for Excellent Schools, which is organizing the Brooklyn Bridge march, contributed $2,500 to de Blasio, according to FES Executive Director Jeremiah Kittredge.

Despite their wary relationship with de Blasio, the charter sector is even more reluctant to support Lhota, whose education agenda maps more closely to their own. Lhota has pledged to double New York City’s charter school sector and continue to allow schools to operate in city-owned buildings rent-free. In contrast, de Blasio offered more details this week about the sliding scale he’d employ to charge rent to charter schools that have raised large sums of private money.

“Bill de Blasio is no friend to the education reform movement,” said a Lhota spokeswoman, Jessica Proud.. “He wants to obliterate charter schools despite their enormous success in educating our children.”

The de Blasio campaign declined to comment.

But charter school leaders said they see areas of agreement with de Blasio on education. Rowe pointed to de Blasio’s plan to expand early childhood access, which includes a tax on the wealthy to fund full-day universal pre-kindergarten. Rowe said he supports the plan, but added that de Blasio must embrace changing state law to allow charter schools to serve these students.

“Quality pre-kindergarten is one of the most important legislative initiatives, in particular for kids from the communities we serve,” Rowe said.

De Blasio has said he does not believe charter schools should be allowed to operate pre-K programs.

Some charter school advocates believe they can convince de Blasio to change his mind on that issue and others. And some also say participating in a massive rally that could end up attacking de Blasio is not the way to do it.

“All of my parents voted for de Blasio,” said Rafiq Kalam Id-Din, principal of Teaching Firms of America Professional Preparatory School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, explaining why his school would not attend the rally. “How could I tell my parents to then turn around and protest the person you just voted for mayor?”

But Kalam Id-Din said he was still troubled with de Blasio’s statements this week about charging rent to charter schools. To him, they represented a direct contradiction to de Blasio’s larger platform to address the city’s socioeconomic inequities.

“You’re going to tax the people who are trying to serve our most at risk students?” Kalam Id-Din said. “That to me is just perverse.”

Here’s the invitation for tonight’s de Blasio fundraiser, including a list of donors:

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.”