school rule

De Blasio defends parent input under city’s mayoral control structure

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Parents and teachers speak at an April meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy to consider the co-location of Success Academy Bronx 3 in a building with three district middle schools.

Updated — Mayor Bill de Blasio dug in his heels on the issue of mayoral control on Wednesday, urging state lawmakers to renew the law without making changes that would weaken his power over the city’s schools.

De Blasio was back in Albany to pressure lawmakers to renew the law that grants the mayor control over New York City education policy, which expires at the end of June. De Blasio said the current structure has allowed the city to implement its most important education initiatives, from the expansion of pre-kindergarten to the transfer of more power to superintendents.

The mayor has said he supports the three-year extension passed by the Assembly last week, while the state Senate late on Wednesday introduced its own one-year renewal that comes with significant checks. But de Blasio was not ready to accept any proposals offered in recent weeks that would limit his oversight in exchange, including those calling for more community control over school-space decisions.

“I think our current approach is working and I think it’s very inclusive,” de Blasio told reporters between meetings with state leaders in Albany. “I do think there’s many good and constructive ways to hear the voices of parents, and we’re doing that right now.”

A bill introduced by State Senator Jeffrey Klein this week would extend mayoral control for five years. But it would also reduce the mayor’s control of the city’s 13-member Panel for Educational Policy, which votes on co-location plans, new contracts and changes to the school regulations, by adding two members appointed by the city comptroller and the public advocate.

Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, is recommending that the mayor lose his majority rule altogether by allowed the mayor to appoint just seven of 17 panel members. She has also recommended that the Department of Education’s contracts be approved by the city comptroller, not the panel, and that elected parent councils have the final say over co-location proposals in their districts.

“No, I do not think CECs should have veto power over co-locations,” de Blasio said, referring to James’ proposal to bolster district Community Education Councils. “I think that would be a mistake.”

De Blasio said his administration has gone to great lengths to encourage parent involvement, pointing to an extra 40 minutes each week that teachers must spend interacting with parents under their new union contract. He also said he has encouraged independence from the people he has appointed to the panel, some of whom have voted to delay or nix some co-location plans.

But James, who earlier this year held a series of forums to solicit feedback on mayoral control, said she regularly heard from “parents who feel disempowered.”

“Parents want a seat at the table,” James said.

The landmark mayoral-control legislation dismantled the city’s 32 local school boards in 2002 and granted then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg control after more than three decades of decentralized rule. When the law last expired in 2009, lawmakers eventually extended mayoral control by six years, but not before adding a new checks and balances. One change, which required the city to hold public hearings and study the impact of school closures or co-locations before they can be approved, ended up derailing the Bloomberg administration’s agenda for a year.

It’s those kinds of legislative tweaks that de Blasio is looking to avoid this time around. Giving up contract oversight could hinder the city’s ability to quickly approve funds for its thousands of pre-K programs each year, for example, especially if that power would be ceded to Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has scrutinized the city’s pre-K deals.

De Blasio’s stance represents a shift from how he talked about mayoral control over the last six years as a city councilman and public advocate, when he was an outspoken opponent.

“We saw parents come out in huge numbers every month, whatever was on the agenda,” de Blasio said of his time on District 15’s school board. “Because they understood that it was their opportunity to hear what was going on and address actual decision-makers, unscripted. No rules; they could ask any question they wanted, demand answers. And I thought it was very healthy for the system.”

De Blasio has recalled that time differently over the last few months.

“If it’s not renewed, we’re going to go back to chaos and corruption,” de Blasio said Wednesday. “It’s as simple as that. I’ve experienced it firsthand. You know, I saw what that system was like. I was involved. It was a horribly dysfunctional system.”

That evolution has exposed de Blasio to criticism from some allies: “Mayor de Blasio is not different from any other elected official who refuses to relinquish power,” James said.

After meeting with reporters, de Blasio spent about 45 minutes with new Senate Republican majority leader John Flanagan, whose support the mayor needs.

“What I care about is, is there an open door? Is there a real substantive dialogue? And I think today was a good example that yes, there is,” de Blasio said.

Flanagan has said he wants to tweak the mayoral control law, but offered few specifics until after meeting with de Blasio on Wednesday. Legislation he has introduced includes a one-year extension that also raised the charter school cap, from 460 to 560 schools, and would require the state legislature to approve of the city’s operating budget.

The mayor will have some bipartisan backing as negotiations heat up. Senator Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island, said he “firmly” supported mayoral control, though he said he’s not opposed to just a one-year extension. Earlier in the day, de Blasio said that idea would turn mayoral control into “a political football.”

“For me, it’s just a matter of making sure that every year we have mayoral control,” Lanza said. “How we get there is less important to me.”

Mayoral control is one of several education issues that remain before the legislature before the session ends on June 17. Also on the table are proposed tax credits to subsidize private-school enrollment, raising the charter school cap, delaying changes teacher evaluations, and providing tuition assistance for undocumented students.

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