open sesame

Requesting public records from NYC’s education department? Be prepared to wait… 103 days

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

The education department is among the least responsive agencies in New York City when it comes to public records requests.

Worse than the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Administration for Children’s Services — and far worse than the NYPD. That’s according to an analysis of a year’s worth of open records requests initially gathered by the Village Voice and subsequently provided to Chalkbeat.

In fact, the Department of Education’s 103-day average response time to public records requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Law makes it the least responsive of more than a dozen city agencies. (The NYPD’s 34-day average response time, by contrast, is three times faster.)

Between April 2015 and April 2016, the education department received 1,071 public records requests. Some were either fulfilled or denied in a matter of days, but nearly half the requests they answered took 60 days or longer to be resolved. Seventeen percent dragged on over six months.

Just over 14 percent had not been resolved, despite having been requested at least a year ago.

Public records are a key mechanism for members of the public, including journalists, to look behind the veil of local government. It is important enough that then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio released a scathing report in 2013 — the year before he became mayor — blasting the city for its scattershot response to records requests (the education department earned a “D” on an A-F scale).

The Voice requested logs that see what’s happened since, and how responsive nearly two dozen city agencies are to public records requests. They reveal, in large part, that Mayor de Blasio did not act on his own critique. The education department was largely left out of the analysis, though: Eleven months after the Voice inquiry, the department had yet to provide statistics on their responses to records requests.

But officials eventually turned the data over, and it shows the education department is the least responsive agency of the 14 that responded to the Voice. The average response time across those agencies was just over 33 days — three times faster than the education department average. Under the state open records law, agencies are expected to respond to most requests within 25 business days. (The fastest city agency was the Taxi and Limousine Commission, with a nearly four-day average response time.)

Bob Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government, has been disappointed with the city’s response to open records requests under de Blasio. “My thought was, ‘Gee things are going to get so much better’ and the reverse has occurred,” said Freeman. “His record regarding FOIL is terribly disappointing.”

When a department responds, that doesn’t mean that records were provided. Agencies sometimes deny requests they are legally bound to fulfill, Freeman said, assuming many requesters simply won’t bother to appeal or fight the city in court. (The education department has faced multiple lawsuits in recent years for “a pattern and practice” of failing to disclose public records.)

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman defended his agency’s response to public records, arguing that it is in compliance with the law and that nearly 86 percent of all requests were closed within one year.

“The DOE employs multiple, complex data systems, and houses hard copy records in over 1,500 schools and dozens of other facilities,” he wrote in an email. “In an agency as large as the [education department], locating, collecting and reviewing records responsive to FOIL requests can pose challenges.”

The number of requests jumped 35 percent between 2013 and 2015, Aciman added, and the city has expanded the office that handles those requests to seven full-time employees up from four in 2014.

But five other agencies received far more requests — and responded more quickly than the Department of Education. The Department of Environmental Protection, for instance, received 14,797 open records requests — nearly 14 times as many as the education department — yet responded 45 days faster on average.

Freeman, of the Committee on Open Government, acknowledged that some requests may be complex and require time to track down, but said that wouldn’t explain an overall pattern of non-responsiveness.

“There’s often no particularly good reason for delaying disclosure,” he said. “Why should it take so long?”

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee is looking at new jobs

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district could have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.