New proposal

Rebuffing city’s plans, local education council offers its own vision for controversial Upper West Side rezoning

The District 3 Community Education Council includes P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan, pictured above, in its rezoning proposal. The school is slated for merger with P.S. 76. (Photo by Alex Zimmerman)

The Community Education Council in District 3 is pushing its own sweeping rezoning proposal to address overcrowding and integrate Upper West Side schools, according to a lengthy letter to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

The CEC doesn’t have the authority to redraw zone lines — that responsibility lies with the city Department of Education. But it is ultimately up to CEC members to approve whatever the city puts forward.

“We intend to control our own fate. We will not have a plan dictated to us by the Department of Education, by City Hall,” said CEC President Joe Fiordaliso. “The Department of Education can either stand with us in support of overcrowding relief and efforts to desegregate our schools or not. I certainly hope they chose to stand with us.”

Members are calling for: moving P.S. 452 to give the co-located school room to grow, a larger zone for P.S. 191 to ensure it doesn’t wind up under-enrolled, and the rezoning of schools in Harlem after the DOE’s announcement, reported by Chalkbeat on Monday, that P.S. 241 will possibly be merged with P.S. 76.

In what promises to be a controversial stance, the CEC is sticking with city recommendations to rezone some buildings in the Lincoln Towers community from high-performing P.S. 199 to P.S. 191 — two schools that are separated not only by state test scores but also racial and socioeconomic lines.

“We know many people are going to be very unhappy and we don’t relish that,” said Kim Watkins, chair of the CEC zoning committee. “We empathize with every single family not getting what they want. But for the district moving forward, I really believe the time for this bold plan is now.”

Fiordaliso also said he hopes the council can leverage the rezoning process to call for a moratorium on charter school co-locations.

“Let them go to other districts. We’re drawing the line in District 3. No more,” he said.

District 3 has been locked in a rezoning battle for more than a year. The city already tabled one previous proposal amid community backlash last year. CEC members expected the city to present a final draft of their current plans at a meeting on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the City Department of Education said that’s not the case.

“We value the CEC’s leadership and partnership, and will continue to solicit feedback, host meetings and engage in robust conversations as we work to submit a final proposal that best serves all of the students and families in District 3,” spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who represents much of the district, came out in support of the CEC’s proposal. She said it represents exactly what Fariña has called for when it comes to school integration: an “organic” solution developed by the community.

“I think what the CEC represents is the larger Upper West Side community, so their job is to see the bigger picture and I think that’s exactly what they’ve done,” she said.

Here are some highlights of the CEC’s proposal:

P.S. 191

Much of the controversy has swirled around parents who would be rezoned to P.S. 191, a school that scores below the district average on state tests and where more than 70 percent of students live in poverty. The school, which has made gains under a relatively new principal, is slated to move into a brand new building with room for almost 700 students in 2017.

The CEC is calling for a larger zone to be drawn around the school to make sure it doesn’t end up under-enrolled. An additional building from the Lincoln Towers, 205 West End Avenue, would be added to the zone.

The council also wants a name change to help fight the stigma P.S. 191 gained after briefly (and, the council argues, incorrectly) being labeled “persistently dangerous.”

P.S. 199

Parents currently zoned for P.S. 199 have hosted rallies and protested at community meetings against proposals that would make P.S. 191 their zoned school instead.

But the CEC, in its own plan, is largely sticking with the city’s proposed zones around P.S. 199, where fewer than 10 percent of students are poor. Under the CEC’s recommendation, the Lincoln Towers community would remain split among P.S. 199 and P.S. 191.

To relieve overcrowding at the much sought-after school, the council is also asking for a commitment to limit the number of kindergarten classes to five.

P.S. 452

Another element of the CEC’s proposal that is sure to cause controversy: The council is recommending that P.S. 452 move about 16 blocks, into the building being vacated by P.S. 191. The CEC is “uncomfortable” with the prospect of starting an untested school in the old building, according to the proposal.

“We strongly believe that an already successful school with an excellent reputation and respected leadership makes it significantly more likely that District 3 will have a highly successful school,” the letter states.

In the meantime, the CEC wants the city to provide temporary busing to make the move easier for families.

Long term, the council’s plan calls for a middle school to open up in the space vacated by P.S. 452’s move.

Harlem

Perhaps the biggest departure from city plans surround the CEC’s proposal to include schools in the northern end of the district in the current rezoning process. As they stand, the city’s rezoning plans only address schools south of 110th Street, leaving out schools near Morningside Park.

Chalkbeat reported on Monday that the DOE is proposing to merge one school in the area: P.S. 241 the STEM Institute of Manhattan would fold into P.S. 76, about eight blocks away.

Given the possible consolidation, the CEC plan calls for the current P.S. 241 zone to be split among three schools: P.S.180 to the west, P.S. 76 to the north, and P.S. 185 to the east. Fiordaliso said that would make it easier for families to get to their neighborhood schools.

“It comes down to distance,” he said. “If we have other schools closer, we felt it was responsible and appropriate to split that zone.”

The CEC also calls for the city to engage with schools in the north to come up with special programming and other ways to boost enrollment and academics.

You can read the CEC’s full proposal here.



big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.