city hall watch

De Blasio faces questions about class size, discipline, and testing at town hall

Members of the public grilled the mayor on crowded classes and school discipline during a two-hour-plus education forum Thursday night.

The public event at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights was Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second-ever town hall meeting and the first focused on public schools. Questions from the Queens-heavy crowd centered on topics with a direct impact on local students and educators, from jam-packed schools to high-stakes tests and English classes for immigrant parents.

In contrast, the mayor faced relatively few questions about policy debates that have flared up in New York and across the country: how to turn around struggling schools, promote school diversity, and evaluate teachers. While the strict discipline policies at Success Academy and other charter schools have grabbed headlines and prompted press conferences in recent days, the crowd in Queens — where charters are relatively rare — did not mention them Thursday.

Before the forum, some critics had seized on City Hall’s requirement that would-be attendees reserve spots through Queens City Councilman Daniel Dromm. The pro-charter advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools called it a “Potemkin Town Hall.”

Standing in one of the city’s most crowded districts, de Blasio fielded a number of questions about class size. The district is so tight on space that it will still be short 900 seats even after new schools open, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Citywide, about 44 percent of city students attended overcrowded schools in 2013-14, according to the IBO.

The issue is a top concern for parents and was a problem de Blasio promised to address during his campaign for mayor, critics pointed out at the forum.

De Blasio responded that his hands are tied by funding. He will invest $3.5 million to increase capacity throughout the city and another $500 million to remove school trailers, but these funds are not sufficient, he said.

“It’s 4 billion dollars and it’s not enough. I’m very comfortable telling you here in public that it’s not enough,” he said.

De Blasio also answered several questions about police presence in schools and the impact of harsh disciplinary policies on students.

Suspensions fell by 17 percent last year, progress that the mayor promised last month to build on. Yet for some, this is not enough.

An advocate asked whether de Blasio would put school safety officers back under the control of the education department instead of the police, which advocates argue can lead to the criminalization of student misbehavior. The mayor said he supports police oversight and added, in a rare display of praise for his predecessor, that he thought former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s school discipline policies had led to “real progress.”

Even as school suspensions have sharply declined, black and Hispanic students continue to face harsher punishments at a disproportionate rate. But when pushed about the impact of disciplinary policies on students of color, de Blasio said he is trying to find a middle ground between keeping schools safe and eliminating racial disparities in discipline.

“I’ve got to be straight up about the fact that we are balancing real safety needs in the school,” de Blasio said

In response to complaints about the state’s standardized exams, de Blasio said he felt “kindred” with the opt-out movement, which grew to include 7,900 city students this year but remains greatly overshadowed by the state-wide boycotts. He also touted his administration’s shift away from using test scores to evaluate schools.

But one middle school teacher took the microphone to say the changes have made little difference.

“I know that you’ve spoken about the reduced focus on testing but I want you to know that I’m really not seeing it,” Amanda Vender said.

After the forum, parents who attended  had mixed views on de Blasio’s answers.

Ron Hayduk, a parent at P.S. 69, called the meeting an “honest exchange” with “substantive questions.

Another parent, Dudley Stewart, had a different take.

“[The mayor] didn’t quite have answers for a couple of the important things that people brought up,” Stewart said.

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

Movers & shakers

Memphis native named superintendent of Aspire network’s local schools

PHOTO: Aspire Public Schools
Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job. Previously, Manning was a Memphis City Schools principal.

Aspire Public Schools has named Nickalous Manning to its top job.

Manning will replace Allison Leslie, the founding superintendent of the charter network’s Memphis schools. She is leaving for Instruction Partners, an education consulting firm that works with school districts in Tennessee, Florida, and Indiana.

“I look forward to serving children and families in my hometown,” said Manning, who was previously Aspire’s associate superintendent, director of curriculum and instruction, outreach coordinator, and principal of its Aspire Hanley Elementary.

Aspire runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis.

Manning said he hopes to focus on Aspire’s role in supporting students outside the classroom and to launch a community advisory board, composed of parents and neighborhood residents, to “make sure that the community has a voice.”

“We know that we need to support our children in more than just academics,” he told Chalkbeat.

In Memphis, most students who attend Aspire schools come from low-income neighborhoods. At its four local schools, the charter group serves about 1,600 Memphis students.

Manning, who holds a doctorate in education, is a graduate of Memphis’ Melrose High School, which sits less than two miles from two Aspire schools. Before joining the network, he worked as a teacher and administrator in the Memphis City Schools and served as principal of Lanier Middle School, which closed in 2014 due to low enrollment.

In a statement, Leslie praised Manning’s commitment to the network’s students, saying,“I am looking forward to seeing Dr. Manning continue the great work we started together and make it even better.”

Aspire was founded in California in 1998 and runs 36 schools there. The charter network was recruited to Memphis to join the state-run district in 2013 — the organization’s only expansion outside of California.

In Memphis, Aspire opened two schools in 2013 and grew to three schools the following year. That’s when it opened Coleman Elementary under the state-run district, before switching course in 2016 and opening Aspire East Academy, a K-3 elementary school under the local Shelby County Schools.

This year, the charter network applied with Shelby County Schools to open its second a middle school, in Raleigh, in 2019. Though the application was initially rejected, Manning it would be resubmitted in the coming weeks, before the district’s final vote in August.

The proposed middle school harkens back to a dispute between Shelby County Schools and the state Department of Education over the charter’s legal ability to add grades to its state turnaround school. If approved, the state could create a new school that would be under local oversight.

“We are deeply committed to our children and families,”  Manning said. “We’ve heard from our families that they want continuity in K–8th-grade in their child’s time in schools. We’re committed to that end.”