hitting pause

Upper West Side school rezoning reaches a climax — but plans for Harlem may get put on hold

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman

After more than a year of debate, the District 3 Community Education Council is expected to vote Tuesday on a rezoning proposal that could relieve overcrowding and help integrate Upper West Side schools.

But when it comes to a separate proposal to redraw school boundaries in Harlem, the council may hit the pause button. Kimberly Watkins, who chairs the council’s zoning committee, said she plans to use a public hearing Monday night to ask for a postponement.

“We really haven’t heard from the parents involved and we want to give them an opportunity to ask more questions and feel more comfortable,” Watkins said.

Rezonings have to be proposed by the city Department of Education — but the plans must be approved by the CEC, a board made of local parent volunteers.

The Harlem proposal surfaced only two weeks ago, shortly after the city Department of Education announced plans to merge P.S. 241 STEM Institute of Manhattan with P.S. 76 A. Philip Randolph, some eight blocks away.

Already in the midst of rezoning schools on the Upper West Side, CEC members used news of the merger to push for a plan in the northern end of the district, too. (District 3 spans from the northern tip of Central Park to 122nd Street on the west side of Manhattan.)

Though the council asked city planners to act quickly — applications for kindergarten open at the end of this month — Watkins said it has become clear that more time is needed to hear from the school communities in Harlem that would be impacted.

Some public hearings have been held since the plan for north of 110th Street was unveiled, but until tonight none of the meetings have been in Harlem, and few parents from that community have spoken up. Watkins said the CEC has until Dec. 24 to vote on the Harlem rezoning proposal.

But Antonette Whittick, a PTA co-president at STEM Institute, said parents feel the merger and rezoning are already a done deal.

“I don’t think we were given time to process what’s going on. It’s being force-fed to us,” she said. “I think it’s intentional to discourage us from fighting.”

The CEC does not have control over the proposed merger — that decision is ultimately up to a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide body.

Community Education Council members have also questioned what will become of the space vacated by the STEM Institute, should the merger go through. STEM shares a building with two charter schools. One of those schools, Opportunity Charter, happens to be up for renewal — and has asked to be allowed to expand.

Future of Schools

5 ways ‘Janus’ Supreme Court ruling could affect Illinois schools

The Chicago Teachers Union picketing in 2012. (Photo: Raiselle Resnick for GothamSchools)

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to decide a historic case that could shift the political landscape and dampen union power – including in local school districts.

The plaintiff in the case, Janus vs. AFSCME, is Illinois state employee Mark Janus. Janus complained that he should not have to pay fees to a government union he refuses to join and whose politics and policies he rejects, and that being compelled to pay violates his First Amendment right to free speech. Illinois is one of 22 states that allow unions to automatically deduct what’s known as an “agency fee” from workers’ checks even if they opt not to join the labor organizations.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the defendant in the case, argues that it is legally obligated to negotiate wages and work conditions via contracts that benefit union-eligible workers like Janus who opt out of membership, and that the fee ensures nonunion workers pay their fair share.

The court is expected to issue a ruling in the case as early as Monday morning. While surprises do happen, most legal experts forecast an adverse ruling for unions. That’s an outcome the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor groups already have been bracing for.

Here’s how Illinois school districts could feel the impact if their predictions come true:

  1. Teacher unions could lose clout

Experts say the Janus case isn’t just a labor issue or a freedom of speech issue — it’s very much connected to the broader clash between the unions, which are typically seen as major cogs in the Democratic Party, and conservative organizations like the Illinois Policy Institute and the National Right To Work Committee. The plaintiff is represented in court by groups tied to the institute and the committee, respectively.  The case was first sparked by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, although he was dropped as a plaintiff when a judge ruled the governor’s office wasn’t directly harmed by the fee policy and lacked standing to sue.

“This is a part of a larger effort to break public employee unions, to limit their power, and to limit what they can do,” said San Francisco-based education consultant Julia Koppich.

With less money to fund their activities, experts said some unions could experience a decline in political clout and find that some school districts feel less pressure to meet their demands. Anti-union organizations or school districts might try to entice members to abandon the groups or discourage former fee payers from joining in an attempt to reduce the relevance of unions.

“I don’t think that means unions are going to go away,” said Martin H. Malin, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace. “A lot is going to depend on an individual school district.”

  1. Teacher pipelines could suffer

While this isn’t being forecast as an acute issue, experts said classrooms could eventually feel the impact of the Janus verdict when it comes to the quality and quantity of teachers.

“It’s not a good thing for what’s happening in class if it over time erodes union power, work conditions, and makes it harder to retain teachers,” Malin said.

If unions in certain school districts are unable to secure regular salary increases, professional development, supplies and materials, Koppich said, “then people will stop signing up to teach in those districts.”   

Kayne said it’s possible that if Janus weakens union advocacy, teacher shortages could be exacerbated.

“There is a shortage of teachers in Illinois, and I think it’s because the profession and teachers have been blamed and disparaged and they haven’t been funded,” she said. “If we undermine the unions that advocate on their behalf, it’s going to result in maybe a greater teacher shortage or conditions that are even worse for teachers. I think that definitely impacts teachers being hired, teachers being retained, teachers feeling supported to do the important work they’re doing.”

  1. Teacher unions will lose money and members, and tighten belts

A ruling against unions essentially means that teachers’ unions have to work on behalf of non-union teachers but can’t charge them for those services via agency fees.

“I think there’s a fair number of people who probably will choose not to pay a fee, and won’t join the union—not for philosophical reasons, but because people like free stuff,” said Koppich, who said unions will seek ways to reduce their budgets.

Malin said that he expects the Chicago Teachers Union to lose funds and members, but that the union is well-equipped to rebound.

“They do a great job, though, of internal organizing,” Malin said.

CTU spokesperson Christine Geovanis said the CTU plans to realign and reduce the union staff this year by at least 10 percent via retirements, voluntary separations, and layoffs, with a goal of maintaining strength in organizing and direct member support.  

  1. Teachers might pay more in dues

As mentioned, teacher unions could be facing some hard decisions about how to account for the loss of funds from fee payers, and, potentially, the loss of members. One way teacher unions could try to make up for the lost revenues is by asking members to pay more.

“They may raise dues, which requires a vote of members,” Koppich said.

CTU teachers pay about $1,100 in annual dues, while non-union teachers pay the same amount in fees. Paraprofessionals and school-related personnel pay 60 percent of teacher dues or agency fees, which come to $655. The CTU counts just under 24,000 active members. Less than 2 percent of union-eligible school workers pay agency fees in lieu of joining the CTU, according to union spokesperson Christine Geovanis. That might not sound like much, but it comes to about 400 employees who collectively contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars.

  1. Teachers will hear more union recruitment pitches

In June 2017, about 900 CPS employees were agency fee payers. The union has ramped up its recruiting efforts since then, and now the number stands at about 400. In the fall, CTU launched a districtwide campaign encouraging agency fee payers to sign union cards, and this spring has continued the effort  CTU’s Christine Geovanis said. Teacher unions will have to redouble efforts to get non-members to join them, and to keep current members in the organization, experts said. Unions must stress what people gain by joining, Koppich said.

“Unions essentially have to return to the old days when they had to organize people, when there was no agency fee and they had to give people a reason to pay out of their hard-earned paycheck,” Koppich said.

In school systems where teachers generally have a good relationship with the district, experts said union membership might not seem as attractive or necessary. But in places like Chicago, where the district-union relationship is more adversarial, unions might have an easier time articulating their importance, according to Andrea Kayne, an associate professor at DePaul University’s College of Education and director of its educational leadership doctoral program. Kayne doesn’t expect the CTU to crumble after Janus. She pointed to the union’s resilience in the face of a 2011 state law that raised the threshold for authorizing a teachers union strike so that 75 percent of membership had to vote in favor of it. (Ultimately, 90 percent of teachers supported the strike, which lasted seven days.)

“If you go back to the last strike with the CTU, you had the mayor and others going to Springfield and lobbying to make it harder for teachers to strike, but it actually resulted in the union being even stronger and more emboldened, and they got a strike vote very easily in 2012,” Kayne said. “I do feel that when teachers unions are attacked and they perceive it as a governor or state trying to undermine them, it creates more cohesion and galvanizes action.”

a different model

Denver expands its experiment with more autonomous ‘innovation zones’

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
McAuliffe Manual students gather for a photo with Denver Public Schools officials at a press conference in 2017.

Five more Denver schools will have additional freedom this fall from school district rules.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow one school to join an existing “innovation zone” and another four to create a new one. Innovation zones represent a different way of managing schools that is somewhere between the traditional approach and that of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run.

Schools in innovation zones are district schools, but are overseen by a separate nonprofit board of directors. The idea is that grouping together schools that share a common goal or focus, and giving them more autonomy over how they spend their time and money, allows them to try new things. The ultimate goal is for the schools to do better by their students.

“I don’t know how these zones are going to end up performing over time,” Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien said, “but the need to allow people to try their hardest, to do the best they can and color outside the lines is a really important step.”

The school board approved the first-ever zone in 2016. Called the Luminary Learning Network, it was composed of four district schools: Ashley Elementary School, Cole Arts & Science Academy, Denver Green School, and Creativity Challenge Community.

A fifth school, Escuela Valdez, will now join. Valdez is a dual-language elementary in northwest Denver, where students are taught in English and Spanish. It has high test scores and is rated “blue,” the highest of the district’s color-coded ratings. That fits with the zone’s philosophy of taking already successful schools “from good to great.”

The board also approved the formation of a second zone called the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone. It will consist of four schools in northeast Denver that follow the International Baccalaureate, or IB, curriculum: Swigert International elementary school, McAuliffe International and McAuliffe Manual middle schools, and Northfield High School.

All four of those schools are also high-performing, but the common thread is the rigorous IB curriculum, which has its own tenets and requirements. School leaders hope to create a more seamless experience for students from preschool through 12th grade by better aligning curriculums, teacher trainings, and other practices across the schools.

“The creation of the zone opens a door for collaboration,” Pam Jubis, a parent of two Swigert elementary school students, said during public testimony at Thursday’s board meeting.

Another goal, according to school leaders, is to create a feeder pattern that would ultimately funnel more IB middle school students to Northfield High, which opened in 2015.

Several school board members expressed concerns that the zone could hurt enrollment at other high schools. They were particularly worried about Manual High School, a struggling school that’s also located in northeast Denver and shares its building with McAuliffe Manual Middle School. McAuliffe Manual is modeled after McAuliffe International, the district’s most sought-after middle school. It was placed at Manual in part to feed into the high school.

Kurt Dennis, who serves as principal at McAuliffe International and helped found McAuliffe Manual, told the school board earlier this week that the middle school at Manual is still committed to that arrangement. The feeder pattern is meant to be between McAuliffe International and Northfield, not McAuliffe Manual and Northfield, he said.

“Our intention for McAuliffe Manual is that we are partners with Manual,” Dennis said.

Innovation zones were created by a 2008 state law. Denver Public Schools has taken the concept and run with it. The 92,600-student district is known nationwide for its “portfolio management” approach that incorporates a wide range of school types.

To join an innovation zone in Denver, schools must first be designated “innovation schools.” That status allows them to waive certain state and district rules, such as the length of the school day or year. To get that status, a majority of staff members must vote to adopt an “innovation plan” that details which waivers the school is seeking and why. The same staff voting requirement is in place for joining an innovation zone.

Being part of a zone exempts school leaders from district meetings and trainings, thus allowing them to spend more time working with teachers and students. The leaders are supervised by an executive director hired by the zone’s board of directors, not a district administrator.

In addition, zone schools have more control over how they spend the state per-student funding they receive. They can opt out of paying for certain district services that are non-negotiable for regular district schools, and instead use that money to pay for things that meet their school’s specific needs, such as an additional special education teacher.

Valdez plans to use that budget flexibility to provide additional bilingual speech therapy services, parents and teachers told the school board. The school’s current therapist works part-time and is so overwhelmed with paperwork that it’s cutting into her time with students, they said.

“Though our school is bilingual and our current teacher is very good, the school would benefit from having bilingual support services,” Ivonne Gutierrez, a parent at the school, said.

In exchange for increased autonomy, schools in both zones agreed to work to improve their ratings, which are largely based on test scores, within three years. The Luminary Learning Network is heading into its third school year with three of its four schools on track. Whether or not they meet that goal could influence the board’s future support of the zone.

Eight other schools previously signaled their interest in joining the Luminary Learning Network or forming innovation zones of their own. However, only Valdez and the four schools in the Northeast Denver Innovation Zones submitted applications this year.