space truce

As moratorium lifts, city offers new vision for community role in school space plans

Just weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio was still repeating his pledge to halt new co-locations until a review of the process was complete. That moratorium ended today, when the Department of Education announced eight new space-sharing plans for next year — and a new engagement process that it says will ensure the arrangements have public support.

De Blasio isn’t ceding any of his regulatory authority of the school system. But the new process will include more community meetings and forums than what’s required under the city’s mayoral control regulations, according to an outline of the policy that the department released. It will also give parents and local officials a voice in the city’s review of the method through which classrooms are counted in each school building.

“Over the last decade, communities across the City have been cut out of decision-making processes that undermined the voices of educators and families,” said spokesman Devon Puglia, who last year was charged with defending the city’s controversial space-sharing policies under the Bloomberg administration. “That approach is now gone—and we’re replacing it with one that reflects a genuine desire to engage with communities.”

Puglia said the new policies wouldn’t affect the status of dozens of pending co-locations, some of which could be reversed as early as Friday. But it will be in place for the new colocation plans, which the city’s Panel for Educational Policy would vote on in just 10 weeks.

The co-location plans include three new  programs for students with disabilities and two existing charter schools whose future homes have been disrupted by construction delays. Puglia said more specifics would be available when the plans are submitted for public review later this week.

The proposals essentially mean that de Blasio has lifted a moratorium on co-locations after just a month and a half in office. During the mayoral campaign last year, de Blasio was critical of how Bloomberg handled school space, which was usually freed up by closing low-performing schools and often ended up going to new charter schools.

As recently as this month, de Blasio repeated the pledge.

“There will be a moratorium on closures and colocations,” de Blasio said on Feb. 3 on the Brian Lehrer show. “And the idea is to create a better system of consultation with parents and communities before we decided how to proceed thereafter.”

Space planning for the city’s 1,200 school buildings, whose classrooms get divvied up among more than 1,800 schools, is a complex process. It is regularly adjusting to citywide demographic trends, enrollment shifts at individual schools, and balanced with an administration’s political agenda. Bloomberg’s agenda was to close schools and open new ones, a combination that resulted in dozens of new plans per year that gave affected schools few meaningful opportunities to register concerns about overcrowded classrooms or squeezed access to facilities. Instead, they aired them in emotional testimonies at contentious public hearings that often lasted into the early morning hours.

De Blasio’s agenda is focused on creating space for extra prekindergarten programs, an effort that could eventually affect space-planning in school buildings. None of the proposals set to be released later this week are for pre-K.

Details from the department’s announcement today, which did not include any official policies, indicate that there will be several ways that the new process will be different.

Parents and local officials are being appointed to a working group that is tasked with examining the “Bluebook”, a 370-page document that contains annual space estimates for each school building. School capacity is supposed to be determined through an objective methodology, but critics have argued that it can be manipulated to make room for new schools in buildings even if they don’t really have enough room.

There will also be an attempt to open up the process to more than a single night of feedback.

City regulations require all proposals to be made public for a 45-day period, which includes a public hearing between department officials and school community members. Merely complying was enough under Bloomberg, but the new administration plans to go “above and beyond” the scope of the law. No specific number of additional meetings were offered.

A third and final change is that top education officials will be required to walk through schools that are being considered for new co-location proposals. In recent years, a deputy chancellor began meeting with school officials after a plan had already been proposed, but it was rarely seen to make a difference. 

Whether more feedback and extra walk-throughs have an effect on the substance of school co-location proposals won’t be clear until the city is faced with its first controversial plan. But department officials said that a new commitment to community engagement from de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña was a significant change.

“With new leadership that will listen, it’s a new era for our system,” Puglia said.


End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”