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.

ATR Update

New York City sent just 41 unassigned teachers to schools after predicting up to 400 placements

After announcing a plan to place up to 400 teachers without permanent jobs in schools with openings this fall — potentially over principals’ objections — the New York City education department ended up placing just 41, according to figures released Thursday.

The placements are part of a city effort to shrink by half the pool of teachers who receive full salaries and benefits despite having lost their full-time positions due to disciplinary or legal issues, or because schools where they worked were closed or lost enrollment. The pool, known as the Absent Teacher Reserve, cost the city nearly $152 million last school year.

In September, just over 1,200 teachers were in the pool — a 20 percent decrease from the start of the previous school year, department officials said. The officials attributed the reduction to a hiring incentive that subsidized the salaries of teachers the schools agreed to hire permanently, and a severance package given to over 100 teachers who retired or resigned this summer.

In recent months, principals with open positions have hired 359 of the unassigned teachers — including 205 on a provisional basis, who will only be kept on if they receive good job ratings. The other 113 teachers were hired permanently under a deal where the department will subsidize their salaries through mid-2019.

Randy Asher, the education department official tasked with shrinking the pool, said the city would work to find placements for more unassigned teachers this school year, though he could not say how many. He added that the city would try whenever possible to have principals voluntarily hire the teachers rather than be assigned them.

“We’ve been working to make matches of their own choosing,” Asher told Chalkbeat. “We’re going to continue to work with principals on a case by case basis.”

None of the 41 teachers assigned to schools had faced legal or disciplinary cases, officials said.

Typically, teachers in the reserve pool rotate among schools on a monthly basis, often serving as substitutes. But under the new assignment policy, the teachers — who started at their new positions in November — will remain in the same school for the full academic year.

Officials said the year-long placements will allow the teachers to participate in school trainings and be evaluated by their principals. Those are rated “effective” or “highly effective” on their evaluations will be permanently hired by their schools, the officials said.

The city’s earlier projection of 300 to 400 placements was based on expected school vacancies, but officials said that some of those vacancies turned out to be for teachers on leave who are due to return soon or for spots that no longer need filled due to declining enrollment.

It’s also possible the smaller-than-expected number of vacancies could reflect principals scrambling to fill or otherwise hide their vacant positions before Oct. 15, after which the city was to begin assigning them teachers.

After the placement plan was announced in July, some principals said it would take away their freedom to hire whomever they choose and could saddle them with ineffective teachers. Among 822 teachers in the reserve at the end of last school year, 12 percent had been rated “ineffective” or “unsatisfactory” in 2015-16, compared to just 1 percent of teachers citywide, according to city data.

Critics also worried the plan would send subpar teachers to struggling schools, since they are most likely to have openings.

The schools where the 41 teachers were sent include a high school that is part of the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performing schools. Taken together, the schools enroll a higher share of poor students and a lower share of students who passed the state exams than the city average, according to an analysis released by The Education Trust – New York, an advocacy group that had criticized the city’s teacher-placement plan.

“This raises major equity concerns,” said Ian Rosenblum, the group’s executive director, in a statement.

Despite advocates’ fears, some principals welcomed the teachers. Department officials said the principal of the Renewal high school, the Coalition School for Social Change in Manhattan, asked to be sent a teacher from the pool. And the principal of a Bronx school said it struggled to find a qualified special-education teacher before the city assigned it one.

“I don’t know if I got lucky, but it worked out,” said the principal, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “My dawning perception of folks who are ATRs is give them a job, give them a clear role, and hold them accountable — and they mostly do it.”

The reserve pool grew under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who struck a deal with the teachers union that gave principals more power to make hiring decisions but prevented teachers from being fired. As the Bloomberg administration aggressively closed schools, the number of unassigned teachers swelled even as the union resisted efforts to cap the length of time educators could remain in the pool.

In 2014, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña promised not to use “forced placement of staff” as a way to shrink the ATR pool. Officials argue that the current policy does not qualify as forced placement because teachers are only sent to schools with open positions and the assigned teachers cannot bump others from their positions.

In October, Fariña said principals should “take a chance” on unassigned teachers.

“But if there’s one who you really feel should not be in any school — not just in your school,” she added, “then we’ll support you.”

The schools that were assigned teachers are spread among 20 of the city’s 32 local districts, with the largest — Manhattan’s District 2 — receiving the most teachers (6). Below are the schools where they were sent:

Manhattan

P.S./I.S. 217 ROOSEVELT ISLAND
BATTERY PARK CITY SCHOOL
BUSINESS OF SPORTS SCHOOL
THE HIGH SCHOOL FOR LANGUAGE AND DIPLOMACY
HIGH SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS AND FINANCE
INDEPENDENCE HIGH SCHOOL
COALITION SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
P.S. 092 MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE
P.S. 133 FRED R MOORE
P.S. 197 JOHN B. RUSSWURM
MOTT HALL HIGH SCHOOL

Bronx

BRONX DESIGN AND CONSTRUCTION ACADEMY
P.S. 011 HIGHBRIDGE
P.S. 199X – THE SHAKESPEARE SCHOOL
THE NEW AMERICAN ACADEMY AT ROBERTO CLEMENTE STATE
NEW DIRECTIONS SECONDARY SCHOOL
BEDFORD PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
P.S. 041 GUN HILL ROAD
P.S./M.S. 11X498 – VAN NEST ACADEMY
FREDERICK DOUGLASS ACADEMY V. MIDDLE SCHOOL

Brooklyn

P.S. 003 THE BEDFORD VILLAGE
CITY POLYTECHNIC HIGH SCHOOL
PS 059 WILLIAM FLOYD
P.S. 147 ISAAC REMSEN
KHALIL GIBRAN INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY
P.S. 191 PAUL ROBESON
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND RESEARCH EARLY COLLEGE HS
P.S. 219 KENNEDY-KING
I.S. 285 MEYER LEVIN
FDNY – CAPTAIN VERNON A. RICHARDS HIGH SCHOOL
EAST NEW YORK MIDDLE SCHOOL OF EXCELLENCE
P.S. 164 CAESAR RODNEY
MOTT HALL BRIDGES ACADEMY

Queens

P.S./I.S. 087 MIDDLE VILLAGE
PIONEER ACADEMY
GOLDIE MAPLE ACADEMY
P.S. 015 JACKIE ROBINSON
P.S./M.S. 147 RONALD MCNAIR
P.S. 127 AEROSPACE SCIENCE MAGNET SCHOOL

departures

Richard Buery, architect of New York City’s massive pre-K expansion, is leaving City Hall

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, pictured during a school visit in 2014, announced this week that he is leaving his post.

Richard Buery, the deputy mayor who oversaw the de Blasio administration’s celebrated expansion of pre-kindergarten while also trying to ease tensions with the charter-school sector, is stepping down, the mayor said Thursday.

After initially turning down the job — which offered lower pay and greater public scrutiny than in his role as head of the Children’s Aid Society — Buery agreed in early 2014 to pilot the rapid buildout of the city’s free pre-K program, which was the centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term agenda. Within a year and a half, Buery had helped the city create about 50,000 additional pre-K seats while avoiding any major mishaps or controversies — a feat that helped the mayor glide to reelection this month.

“Never before have I had a job where I had 9 o’clock evening daily phone call with my team,” Buery said Thursday at a press conference where de Blasio announced several changes to his cabinet ahead of his second term. Despite its intensity, Buery called the job “an honor and a pleasure.”

Buery — who, until now, was the highest-ranking black official in City Hall and a rumored contender to be the next school’s chief — oversaw several other education initiatives beyond pre-K. Those included the creation of 215 “community schools,” which offer wellness and social services for students and their families; the expansion of after-school programs for middle-school students; and the establishment of a “children’s cabinet” to coordinate the efforts of dozens of city agencies that interact with young people.

More recently, he helped start a new city-run preschool program for 3-year-olds, modeled off the pre-K expansion — an idea the mayor attributed to Buery.

“Richard will be forever remembered as the person who started that initiative on its path,” de Blasio said Thursday.

Buery also played a crucial role as an intermediary between City Hall and the city’s charter-school sector, which have clashed since de Blasio took office promising to reign in the publicly funded but privately run schools. He was ideally positioned to play peacemaker: Before joining the de Blasio administration, he had helped found a Children’s Aid Society charter school, and he counted the leaders of the some of the city’s largest charter networks as friends.

He walked a fine line in his informal mediator role. For instance, he joined the mayor in opposing a state plan to allow more new charter schools to open, yet he sided with charters in their push to receive public money to pay for building rental.

“In Rich, we had a natural ally,” said Steven Wilson, chief executive officer of the Ascend charter network, in an email. “He understood our constraints and challenges, and was always willing to give voice to them with the Mayor.”

“If the administration doesn’t bring in someone similarly experienced, intelligent, and supportive,” he added, “it will be a loss to the sector.”

Yet, not everyone in the charter sector has had a warm relationship with Buery.

Dan Loeb, chairman of Success Academy charter schools — the network that has feuded most bitterly with the de Blasio administration — upbraided Buery in racially charged emails recently published by Politico New York. In a June email, Loeb called Buery “smug and satisfied” and an “apologist for the failing status quo” that leaves “poor black kids” with an inadequate education.

In an interview Thursday, Buery told Chalkbeat that he had tried to bridge the divide between members of the charter sector and City Hall, but the “really toxic, ugly politics that we have” sometimes got in the way.

“There’s still too much unnecessary negativity and ad hominem attacks and I don’t think it’s productive,” he said. “We’d do a lot better if we spent more time talking and less time yelling.”

Buery arrived at City Hall with a compelling backstory.

The son of immigrants from Panama, he grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, before graduating from Stuyvesant High School and enrolling in Harvard at age 16. He later attended Yale Law School, taught at an orphanage in Zimbabwe, and founded multiple youth-focused nonprofit groups.

Buery will remain in his post for the next few weeks while the administration seeks a replacement. In the interview with Chalkbeat, he shot down any suggestion that he might become the city’s next schools chancellor — “I never have aspired to that role” — but also said he did not have another job lined up. 

In his next role, he said, he is seeking a way to push back against the policies of President Donald Trump, which he called “the most un-American administration of my lifetime.”

“In one way it’s a terrible time, a challenging time for the country,” Buery said. “But in another way it’s an incredible opportunity in the country to stand up and articulate the values we believe in and stand up for those values. And I want to continue being a part of that.”

Monica Disare contributed reporting.