consolidations cont'd

After announcing plans for 12 school mergers, Fariña says to expect many more

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Chancellor Carmen Fariña expects to consolidate a growing number of very small schools next year, which she has asked superintendents to identify, she told city lawmakers Monday.

In a reversal of the previous administration’s policy of creating new small schools, Fariña has announced plans over the past year to combine 25 small schools, arguing that by pooling resources the merged schools are able to offer more advanced classes and enrichment programs. While she did not have an exact count on Monday, Fariña said her conversations with superintendents suggest that many more small schools could benefit from mergers.

“It will certainly probably be more than what we did this year, based on what I’m hearing,” Fariña told reporters after a three-hour City Council hearing on the mayor’s proposed $23.1 billion education spending plan for next school year, where she also answered questions about school safety, transgender students, and calls to make lunch free for all students.

The schools that Fariña has targeted for consolidations so far have been very small, typically with 200 students or fewer, and often low-performing as well. (The plans call for 12 mergers, including one set of three schools.) On Monday she added some other factors that might make schools ideal candidates for mergers: they share a building; one principal is retiring, making it easier for the other to take over; one school is higher performing than the other; or one school has resources, like science equipment or honors classes, that could benefit the other.

When two or three schools consolidate, the money saved by paying for only one principal and administrative staff “goes back into classrooms,” Fariña said, perhaps to fund additional elective classes or after-school programs. She is also considering removing individual grades from schools — such grades six to eight in a school that includes the elementary and middle grades — if just part of a school is under-enrolled, Fariña added.

After Fariña meets with every superintendent, a special merger unit within the education department will create a list of potential consolidations, which officials will discuss with people at each school and the city’s education policy board will vote on, she said.

“Nothing will happen without a lot of discussion,” Fariña told the council.

Here are some other highlights from the chancellor’s testimony and her briefing with reporters:

Fariña defended the city’s school safety record, saying schools are safer than ever.

The mayor’s critics have mounted a fierce campaign featuring TV commercials and rallies (including one planned for Tuesday at City Hall) to convince the public that schools have become more dangerous under his watch. The charter school advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools has said that schools saw more violent incidents last year (using state figures that the city disputes), and more weapons were seized from students.

But Fariña flatly denied those charges on Monday, adding that she has found that schools labeled “persistently dangerous” by the state do not warrant that label. (State policy makers are considering revising how schools earn that label.)

“I happen to think school safety is better than it’s ever been,” she told reporters. “Even one case is too many, but it’s certainly not at the level where I’d say our schools are unsafe.”

She said the city is ahead of the curve in serving transgender students, though its bathroom policy must be revisited.

The Obama administration released guidelines last week on how school districts should protect the rights of transgender students — more than two years after New York City issued similar recommendations.

“We’re so far ahead of the rest of the country,” Fariña told reporters, trumpeting the education department’s new liaison for LGBTQ students. She said the liaison has already trained many superintendents and schools’ parent representatives on LGBTQ-related issues, though several council members said one liaison is not enough.

However, the city might still have to update its transgender-student policy to conform with the new federal guidelines. While the city recommends that those students be allowed to use private bathrooms if they request them, the federal rules say they must be permitted to use whichever bathrooms match their gender identity.

She wouldn’t commit to expanding a free-lunch program, despite pressure from lawmakers.

City Council members continued to press the city to expand a free-lunch program in middle schools to include all students, citing advocates who say an additional 120,000 students would eat the $1.75 lunches if they were free. A council report said that more middle-school students ate lunch as a result of the program, while the city did not lose any federal funding — a concern the mayor has raised.

The council estimates that expanding the program to all students would cost $8.75 million next year. Fariña said Monday that the city is “looking into” the possibility of adding money for free lunches, but that “it’s all a matter of priorities.”

Schools could start getting money for students who arrive mid-year.

It frustrates principals every year: Latecomer students enroll after Oct. 31, when school budgets are set based on enrollment counts, leaving schools to serve extra students without extra funding.

Fariña told lawmakers Monday she’s aware of the issue and is considering possible solutions, such as re-calculating a school’s budget mid-year if it enrolls a certain number of latecomers.

“Any child who comes to your school after October 31 is like a blank slate,” Farina said. “They don’t carry money.”

However, she noted that many schools also lose students during the year but still retain the funding tied to them.

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.”