Looking ahead

Five big questions facing New York City schools as a new year begins

More than one million students will stream through school doors on Wednesday, the start of a high-stakes year for New York City.

This is school year number two for the mayor, who will be trying to pull off a number of complicated education initiatives at once.

Sixty-five thousand four-year-olds will be in full-day pre-kindergarten, a record for the city. Nearly 130 schools are scheduled to get new mental or physical health services, putting a new school-improvement strategy to the test and posing another logistical challenge for city officials. And a new system for helping 1,600 schools manage nitty-gritty issues like budgets and training is making its debut.

Other challenges are educational. The city has promised to improve its low-performing schools by flooding them with resources, but students are still entering those schools far behind. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio will have to fend off state officials critical of his management of the school system.

As teachers and students head into day one, here are five big-picture questions facing the city’s school system.

Will the “Renewal” school-turnaround program make inroads?

The city spent much of last year helping its low-performing schools develop plans for how they would improve. This year, the strategies will be put to the test at the 94 “Renewal” schools, whose progress is being closely monitored by state officials and by critics of the mayor’s approach.

De Blasio is betting on the idea that struggling schools don’t need to have their staffs overhauled or be replaced with charter schools. Instead, the city is spending millions on teacher training, principal coaches, extra support for English learners, and partnerships with social service organizations.

De Blasio’s Wednesday afternoon visit to the Renaissance School for the Arts in East Harlem will highlight how those partnerships can add time to the school day. The expanded learning initiative, which will cost the city $12.6 million this year, will staff Renaissance’s after-school program with AmeriCorps fellows.

At another planned stop on Wednesday, Chancellor Carmen Fariña will join union leaders for a tour of Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies High School in the Bronx, which is part of another city initiative to convert schools into “community schools” offering an array of services for local residents and families.

The visit to Morris Academy is symbolic for another reason. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration created the school after shuttering Morris High School, and Bloomberg used to return to the building to tout the success of his aggressive school-closure policies. Fariña’s visit is likely to focus on very different themes.

Will newly powerful superintendents and borough centers effectively replace the old “network” system?

One of the biggest changes schools have experienced over the last year is nearly invisible to most parents and students — a wholesale reorganization of the city’s “school support” teams. But for most principals, the changes will be fundamental, and it won’t take long for them to get a sense of what it will be like to work under the new arrangement.

The reorganization comes as the system’s 45 superintendents take on greater authority over the schools within their geographic domains. That power shift has unnerved some principals who have grown accustomed to being solely in charge of how their schools are run. But Fariña saw the move as necessary to create more uniformity across the city’s schools and ensure schools in need of extra support are not left unsupervised.

Replacing the 55 smaller support teams called “networks” are seven new borough support centers, which opened this summer. Now, principals will be relying on the centers to help them with everything from ordering classroom supplies to supporting students with disabilities.

What will come of the push for more family engagement?

Chancellor Fariña has said that the first step to improved student performance is improved attendance, particularly for the one in five city students who are chronically absent. Getting parents more involved is crucial for accomplishing that, Fariña has said in interviews leading up to the start of the school year.

The city’s community-schools effort is designed to get parents into school buildings, whether for English language classes, Zumba, or free laundry services. This will also be the second year that teachers will have dedicated time during the workday to contact parents. Whether those efforts will reduce chronic absenteeism will be closely watched by researchers and advocates who agree with Fariña’s methods.

Meanwhile, the education department will be confronting new and old challenges for showing that it is responsive to parent concerns.

The city has announced plans to merge a handful of schools with declining enrollments with other schools — moves that could spark emotional reactions from teachers and families of schools being officially eliminated. The city’s education policy panel will have to formally approve the mergers, as well as analyze another round of contentious charter school co-location proposals under a new law that encourages the city to find space in its buildings for new charter schools.

How will the de Blasio administration campaign for mayoral control?

The mayor’s fiercest political rivals, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican state lawmakers, have the ability to curtail or revoke the mayor’s control over the city school system. This spring, they gave de Blasio just a one-year extension of mayoral control.

Before June, when mayoral control expires again, de Blasio will have to mount a campaign to convince them that he should be given a longer lease on mayoral control.

This year, Republican Senate leader John Flanagan said he wanted to see evidence of de Blasio’s school-turnaround program taking shape, more information about the city’s spending, and for de Blasio and members of his administration to participate in hearings.

Will year two of pre-K run as smoothly as year one?

The first year of the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion encountered few hiccups — a significant feat, since the city more than doubled the number of available seats in full-day programs. But the expansion’s second year is in some ways more ambitious.

Last year, the city leaned heavily on experienced organizations and converting half-day seats into full-day seats. This year, as the city expands from 53,000 seats to over 60,000 seats, the pre-K operation will be stretched further, though it hasn’t appeared to run into new problems yet.

If the logistics go smoothly, attention will likely shift to the quality of the programs. The city has a vast and varied challenge in the years ahead in making sure that students in new, old, expanded, and community-organization-run programs are getting a similar learning experience to those in public school programs.

Follow the money

In Denver school board races, incumbents outpacing challengers in campaign contributions

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver school board vice president Barbara O'Brien speaks at a press conference at Holm Elementary.
Donations to Denver school board candidates as of Oct. 12
    Barbara O’Brien, At-Large: $101,291
    Angela Cobián, District 2: $94,152
    Mike Johnson, District 3: $81,855
    Rachele Espiritu, District 4: $73,847
    Jennifer Bacon, District 4: $59,302
    Robert Speth, At-Large: $38,615
    “Sochi” Gaytán, District 2: $24,134
    Carrie A. Olson, District 3: $18,105
    Tay Anderson, District 4: $16,331
    Julie Bañuelos, At-Large: $7,737

Three Denver school board incumbents brought in more money than challengers seeking to unseat them and change the district’s direction, according to new campaign finance reports.

Board vice president Barbara O’Brien has raised the most money so far. A former Colorado lieutenant governor who was first elected to the board in 2013 and represents the city at-large, O’Brien had pulled in $101,291 as of Oct. 12.

The second-highest fundraiser was newcomer Angela Cobián, who raised $94,152. She is running to represent southwest District 2, where there is no incumbent in the race. The board member who currently holds that seat, Rosemary Rodriguez, has endorsed Cobián.

Incumbent Mike Johnson, who is running for re-election in central-east District 3, brought in far more money than his opponent, Carrie A. Olson. In a three-way race for northeast Denver’s District 4, incumbent Rachele Espiritu led in fundraising, but not by as much.

O’Brien, Cobián, Johnson and Espiritu had several big-money donors in common. They include former Denver Center for the Performing Arts chairman Daniel Ritchie, Oakwood Homes CEO Pat Hamill and Denver-based oil and gas company founder Samuel Gary. All three have given in past elections to candidates who support the direction of Denver Public Schools, which is nationally known for embracing school choice and collaborating with charter schools.

Meanwhile, teachers unions were among the biggest contributors to candidates pushing for the state’s largest school district to change course and refocus on its traditional, district-run schools. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association Fund gave the most money — $10,000 — to candidate Jennifer Bacon, a former teacher who is challenging Espiritu in District 4.

It gave smaller amounts to Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running against Cobián in District 2; Olson, who is challenging Johnson in District 3; and Robert Speth, who is running in a three-person race with O’Brien. Speth narrowly lost a race for a board seat in 2015. A supplemental campaign filing shows Speth loaned himself $17,000 on Oct. 13.

The two candidates who raised the least amounts of money also disagree with the district’s direction but were not endorsed by the teachers union and didn’t receive any union money. Tay Anderson, who is running against Espiritu and Bacon in District 4, counts among his biggest donors former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed him and gave $1,110.

In the at-large race, candidate Julie Bañuelos’s biggest cash infusion was a $2,116 loan to herself. As of Oct. 11, Bañuelos had spent more money than she’d raised.

With four seats up for grabs on the seven-member board, the Nov. 7 election has the potential to shift the board’s balance of power. Currently, all seven members back the district’s direction and the vision of long-serving Superintendent Tom Boasberg. Mail ballots went out this week.

The new campaign finance reports, which were due at midnight Tuesday and cover the previous year, show that several of this year’s candidates have already raised more money than the candidate who was leading the pack at this time in the 2015 election.

O’Brien’s biggest contributor was University of Colorado president Bruce Benson, who gave $10,000. Other notable donors include Robin Hickenlooper, wife of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Lieutenant Governor Donna Lynne; and billionaire Phil Anschutz.

Several Denver charter school leaders, including Rocky Mountain Prep CEO James Cryan and KIPP Colorado CEO Kimberlee Sia, donated to O’Brien, Johnson, Espiritu and Cobián.

Political groups are also playing a big role in the election. The groups include several backed by local and state teachers unions, as well as others funded by pro-reform organizations.

Following the money

Douglas County slate that favors continuing school voucher court case is ahead in early fundraising, records show

Former State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. Scheffel is now running for the Douglas County school board. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A group of candidates that largely supports the direction of the Douglas County School District, especially its embrace of school choice policies, has raised nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, new financial records show.

The group, which calls itself “Elevate Douglas County,” topped its competition, the “Community Matters” slate, by more than $30,000 in monetary contributions to committees for individual candidates.

A lot is at stake in the south suburban Denver school board contest. A majority of seats on the seven-member school board are up for grabs, putting the philosophical direction of the state’s third largest school district on the line.

For eight years, the school board has pushed a conservative education reform agenda that included developing a voucher program that would allow parents to use tax dollars to send their children to private school and establishing a market-based pay system for teachers.

While the Elevate slate has promised to reconsider and tweak many of the board’s most controversial decisions, such as teacher pay, the Community Matters slate has promised to roll back many of the previous board’s decisions.

The contrast between the two groups is most stark on the issue of the school district’s voucher program. Created in 2011, the voucher program has been tied up in courts ever since. The Elevate slate supports continuing the court case and reinstating the program. The Community Matters slate staunchly opposes vouchers and would end the court case.

According to records, the Elevate slate raised a total of $98,977 during the first campaign reporting period that ended Oct. 12. Grant Nelson raised the most, $34,373. The three other candidates — Ryan Abresch, Randy Mills and Debora Scheffel — each raised about $21,000.

All four candidates received $6,250 from John Saeman, a Denver businessman and the former chairman of the Daniels Fund. The foundation has financially supported the school district’s legal battle over the voucher program.

Other major contributors to the Elevate team are Ed McVaney, the founder of JD Edwards, and businesswoman Chrystalla Larson.

The Community Matters slate raised a total of $66,692 during the same period. Candidate Krista Holtzmann led the pack, raising more than $21,000. Her teammates — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor and Kevin Leung — raised between $13,000 and $15,000 each.

Among the major donors to the Community Matters slate are Clare Leonard and Herschel Ramsey. Both Parker residents gave $1,000 each to all four candidates.

The campaign finance reports that were due Tuesday tell only part of the story. Earlier this week, special interest groups working to influence the election were required to report their spending.

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, has pumped $300,000 into the race in an effort to support the Community Matters slate.

Meanwhile, Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political nonprofit, is running a “social welfare” issue campaign promoting school choice. Because the nonprofit is not directly supporting candidates, it is not required to disclose how much it is spending. However, the organization said in a statement the campaign would cost six-figures.