it's a deal

It’s a deal: Lawmakers agree to extend mayoral control of New York City schools by one year

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Lawmakers agreed to a one-year extension of mayoral control of New York City schools Friday night, a short-term deal that represents a swipe at Mayor Bill de Blasio and sets up another year of political games between the mayor and state lawmakers.

As expected, the agreement avoids a total lapse in mayoral control, which would have caused procedural headaches for the city. But it represents a defeat for the mayor, who has now twice been unsuccessful at winning support in Albany for a longer-term deal.

In recent days, the Senate and Assembly had been locked in a stalemate on the issue. By Thursday evening, it was clear that Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan — de Blasio’s chief antagonist over mayoral control — had won out.

“While one-year extensions are no way to treat our children, families or educators,” de Blasio said in a statement after the deal’s announcement, “this action is a crucial acknowledgment by State lawmakers that the education progress we have made in New York City could not have happened without our accountable control of the school system.”

The deal includes provisions that require the release of more detailed budget information about New York City schools, according to information sent out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. Senators added that measure as part of a last-minute deal that State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia called troubling on Friday.

“We believe that a one-year extension of mayoral control with reforms that require school-by school budget data to promote greater fiscal transparency is in the best interest of students and their parents,” Flanagan said in a statement. (It was not immediately clear whether the bill will require information about individual schools or just the city’s community school districts.)

Lawmakers also agreed to give districts until the end of the year to negotiate the details of new evaluation systems for teachers and principals. according to Assembly spokesman Michael Whyland. Districts, including New York City, have been facing a Sept. 1 deadline to develop systems that complied with an unpopular 2015 law.

The deal also will allow charter schools to more easily switch between authorizers. That could mean the city’s education department, which oversees a number of charter schools but no longer accepts oversight of new schools, could see some of those schools depart for the State University of New York or the state’s education department.

That provision would only apply to “high-performing charter schools in good standing,” according to the governor’s office.

The deal avoids a number of provisions that would have been even more difficult for de Blasio to stomach.

It does not include an “education inspector,” part of an earlier Senate bill that would have given a governor-appointed watchdog the power to veto decisions made by the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, according to the details released Friday evening.

It also does not include a package of education tax credits that would benefit private schools.

Mayoral control was the most significant aspect of the deal, though, which lawmakers were expected to vote on Friday night. The issue has long been part of a larger political struggle between de Blasio and state lawmakers.

De Blasio attempted to upset Republican majority power in 2014, and has often feuded with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

This year, the mayor traveled to Albany for a four-hour long hearing, which Flanagan dismissed as displaying de Blasio’s “disturbing lack of personal knowledge about city schools.” De Blasio then skipped the second Senate hearing, setting off an avalanche of criticism from lawmakers annoyed by the mayor’s no-show.

A decision to extend mayoral control means the back-and-forth between de Blasio and state lawmakers will cement itself as an annual affair.

End-of-session discussions were also consumed by political jockeying. The Senate introduced two bills, both of which contained “poison pills” for either de Blasio or Assemblymembers, including the education inspector and a package of education tax credits. On Friday, senators threw in the measure to force schools to release more information about their budgets, complicating negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Assembly and the governor have been pushing for a long-term mayoral control extension since the beginning of the session.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg first won control of the city’s schools in 2002, and was granted seven years.

A number of prominent business leaders have stood with de Blasio on the issue, saying that fighting over control of the schools creates unnecessary instability.

mea culpa

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

Adams 14 leaders took a close look at district data during an October meeting. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Looking back on years of poor performance, leaders in the Adams 14 school district considered taking a rare step: saying sorry. But an apology letter to the community was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the September letter that district administrators and board members were to have signed.

“Despite our well-intentioned tactics to get the district out of turnaround, six generations of school boards and four different superintendents and their administrations (including the current leadership) have not worked well together,” the draft letter states. “As a result, our various and conflicting priorities, coupled with the constant turnover and organizational disarray, have produced unacceptable results.”

The letter was written as administrators in the long-struggling suburban district learned that, for the eighth year in a row, students had not met state expectations in reading and math, and the district likely would face additional state sanctions. Multiple sources told Chalkbeat there was internal disagreement about the wording and tone of the letter. Several different drafts were presented, but without agreement, none were finalized or published.

District leaders did not respond to a request for comment about the draft letter.

The district has been working on improving community engagement with a consultant, Team Tipton.

The school board recently agreed to a $150,000 contract for the second phase of a two-year process “proven to be a transformational tool to help the district overcome historical dysfunction, drive a sense of integration and alignment, and set the platform for future success,” according to the resolution approved by the board.

A Team Tipton analysis of community opinion found a high level of distrust for the district, but also optimism about the future.

Some board members and the consultant team have prodded district officials to think more critically about the district’s performance, but many administrators in the district disagree with negative portrayals.

On Wednesday, district officials will explain their plans for improving student performance to the State Board of Education, whose members have the authority to order external management or more drastic interventions.

Here’s the letter in its entirety:



checking in

How do you turn around a district? Six months into her tenure, Sharon Griffin works to line up the basics.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
When Sharon Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

In a crowded room at a community center in a north Memphis neighborhood, the leader of Tennessee’s turnaround district takes a microphone and addresses the parents and students gathered.

“I’m here because we care deeply about your students, and we know we can do better for them,” Sharon Griffin told the crowd. “We have to do that together.”

This would be one of more than three dozen community events in Memphis that Griffin would speak at during her first six months on the job. The gatherings have ranged from this parent night in Frayser to a luncheon with some of the city’s biggest business leaders. And Sharon Griffin’s message remained unchanged: Stay with us, we’re going to get better.

“One of my biggest goals was getting our communities to think differently about the district,” Griffin told Chalkbeat this month. “People only interact with the superintendent or the central office when there’s an issue. We want to meet people where they are and tell them what we are going to do for them.”

When Griffin became the latest leader of the Achievement School District in June, she said one of her biggest priorities would be reconnecting the state-run district with the community it serves most — Memphis.

Griffin, a turnaround veteran from Memphis, has been assigned the task of improving academic performance and the public perception of the state district. Originally created to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools academically, the district of charter operators has struggled to show improvement. Of the 30 schools in the district, nine have climbed out of the bottom 5 percent.

Griffin’s efforts are in line with what Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked her to prioritize: recruit and support effective educators, improve collaboration with schools and in doing so, plan strategically with them.

But first she’s doubling down on improving the way the district functions – such as making sure that the district is in compliance with federal and state grants, and that teachers have the certifications they need to teach certain courses. And that’s taken more time than expected.

Researchers, as well as community members and parents, have said that the district should be seeing greater academic progress after six years. Griffin told Chalkbeat that one of her big priorities will be helping the district better its teaching workforce, which she believes will help improve test scores. In the most recent batch of state test scores, not a single Achievement School District elementary, middle, or high school had more than 20 percent of students scoring on grade level in English or math.

But first, she needed to go on a “listening tour.”

“I’ve been to more meetings than I can count, because I wanted people to get to know me in this role, but more importantly, because I wanted to hear from those in our schools about what’s working and what’s not,” Griffin said. “Now, I get to take what I’ve heard and learned and create action steps forward.”

Griffin said those action look like “better customer service for our charters and our families.” That means Griffin has been focusing on improving communication with the district’s central office, one of the longstanding problems she has heard about from operators. She’s also striving to improve the quality of the district’s teacher workforce, and making facilities safer and more usable.

Griffin’s task will be a mammoth one, and she told Chalkbeat that part of her strategy for getting it done revolves around her new central office team. She said that getting the office running smoothly has taken up a large portion of her time during these early months in the job – especially establishing the revamped office so her charter operators can better communicate with the district. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed – and Griffin’s team of four is now even smaller.

“We’re still small but mighty,” Griffin said. “But I wanted our charters to know where to go with a problem or a question. Same for parents. We had heard they didn’t know where to go. That’s changing.”

Some charter operators have already benefited from the change. Dwayne Tucker, the CEO of LEAD Public Schools, said the district has become more responsive this year and more respectful of charter operators’ time. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only outside of Memphis

“Previously, we’d get a request for data or information that needed a 24-hour turnaround because someone just realized that it needed to be fulfilled,” Tucker said. “Versus looking at us as the customer and planning so we didn’t need to drop everything. There’s more of a customer-service focus happening on ASD leadership now.”

Griffin’s also been turning to charter operators like LEAD for lessons learned – specifically about teacher recruitment and retention. She said she wants to see what charters are doing well and replicate those practices across the district. When Griffin visited Tucker at LEAD this fall, he said they talked mostly about hiring practices.

“She asked us a lot of questions about the teachers we’re looking for,” Tucker said. “We know that our teachers need to have a sense of purpose to do this work, because a turnaround environment is very hard work.”

Earlier in the year, Griffin also turned to the Memphis-based Freedom Prep, which runs one turnaround school, for lessons learned in retaining teachers.

“Our retention rate in the ASD in the past has not been great,” Griffin said. “I’m the third superintendent in six years, so you can imagine what the teacher retention rate is. Freedom Prep is one of the schools that has had a higher retention rate. Why? They’re focused on teacher support.”

A goal for Griffin during the first month or so as chief was to establish an advisory team of local parents, students, and faith leaders – and that hasn’t happened yet. But Griffin says the team is being assembled now, and that their input would be a big factor in the future.

Collaboration is key for Griffin, who is known for bringing groups with different interests together to find common ground.

“My goal is to work us out of a job,” Griffin said. “When we have empowered all of our teachers and leaders to build capacity within schools, the hope is that they won’t need us anymore.”