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?”

charter talks

Hopson weighs charters as school turnaround tool for Shelby County Schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson leads Shelby County Schools in Memphis, home to Tennessee's highest concentration of low-performing schools.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has opened a crack in the door to charter school partnerships that might help his district avoid losing more schools to Tennessee’s turnaround district.

Hopson emailed his principals this week to clarify his recent comments to the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal about possibly recruiting charter organizations for turnaround work. The report’s original headline read: “Hopson says he’s willing to hand schools over to charters, if they have a plan for improvement.”

The superintendent quickly turned to Twitter to label the headline “misleading and inaccurate” and, as he sought to regain control of dialogue on the thorny matter, dispatched an email to his school principals.

“…It is my top priority to ensure all of our schools have the necessary resources to provide students with the high-quality education they deserve,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If the Tennessee Department of Education offers us the opportunity to select a charter operator that is willing to collaborate closely with District leaders to improve a school instead of losing it to the (Achievement School District), then I believe it is our responsibility to explore the option.”

Hopson’s comments hint at a potentially significant shift for a district that has battled openly with the charter sector over students being absorbed by the state’s 6-year-old turnaround initiative known as the ASD.

They also point to the tough spot that the superintendent is in.

On the one hand, the growth of the city’s charter turnaround sector has been a thorn in the side of local school leaders since 2012 when the state-run district began taking control of low-performing schools and assigning them to charter operators. Now with 29 Memphis schools, the ASD has siphoned off thousands of students and millions of dollars in an already under-enrolled and under-funded school environment — and made mostly anemic academic gains. (The local district also oversees about 50 charter schools that it’s authorized.)

On the other hand, Shelby County Schools has its hands full trying to improve a substantial number of struggling schools. It’s made some important headway through its Innovation Zone, which adds resources, extends the school day, and pays more to top principals and teachers who are willing to do some of the toughest education work in America. But the iZone is an expensive model, and few of its schools have exited the state’s priority school list.

In addition, some education reform advocates are lobbying to shift Memphis to a “portfolio model,” in which districts actively turn over schools to charter operators and manage them more like stocks in a portfolio. In other words, successful ones are expanded and failing ones are closed. Indianapolis has a robust portfolio model and, last fall, the philanthropic group known as the Memphis Education Fund took several Memphis school board members there for a tour. (The Memphis Education Fund receives support from several local philanthropies, including The Pyramid Peak Foundation and the Hyde Foundation. Chalkbeat also receives support from Hyde; read about our funding here.)

In his email to principals, Hopson said the school board ultimately would decide whether to authorize charter schools for the district’s turnaround work, and that he expects to discuss the matter with members in the coming weeks.

“All that said, I want to be very clear that my preference would always be to keep schools under the governance of (Shelby County Schools),” the superintendent added.

Hopson has been in discussions with the state Department of Education about several school improvement avenues available in Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law. Among them is an option for Shelby County Schools to voluntarily convert priority schools to a charter, according to department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

One school board member told Chalkbeat he needs more information from the district and state before he would support any move forward. Chris Caldwell added that he thinks the board isn’t up to speed on options under the state’s new education plan.

“At this point, there’s so little information that I’ve been given,” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to conjecture what (a charter conversion) would actually will be like, but I have reservations with any kind of collaboration with the state.”

What would it take for such a shift to be successful?

One Memphis charter advocate says the ground rules are already in place because of a charter compact developed in recent years to address turf issues such as facilities, funding, and accountability.

“In order for a charter to manage a district school that’s underperforming and for it to be successful, that charter needs to have supports from the district to be successful,” said Luther Mercer, the Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center.

The next school board work session is scheduled for Jan. 23.

School and church partnership

Detroit district aims for faith-based partnerships for every school to support student needs

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti surrounded by religious and district leaders wearing new "Got Faith?" shirts.

Each Detroit public school might soon have its own church, synagogue, mosque, temple, chapel, or parish as a partner.

The district on Thursday announced an initiative to connect every district school with a faith-based community partner to help with academic support, student basic needs, and personal and career development, among other services.

The district is now trying to determine which schools have a defined partnership with a religious institution, but estimates that 25 to 30 percent of schools already do. Sharlonda Buckman, senior executive director of family and community engagement, said that the district hopes that, by the end of the year, every one of its 106 schools “has a religious partner working with them in tandem toward the goal of helping our children achieve.”

The program was announced at a press conference at the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, attended by educators, school board members, and invited guests.

“It doesn’t surprise me when I look around the room and see our religious leaders, because you guys, for a long time, have been investing in our children and our people, and it’s been an informal effort,” Buckman said. “You’ve worked with a number of our schools across the district, so today we recognize that we don’t need to do it informally anymore — we need to make this a formal part of how we move this district forward.”

The district is not unique in its approach: church-school partnerships are common across the country and in the state. The national partnering organization Kids Hope USA is based near Holland, Michigan. Supporters believe that stronger faith-school ties will not only improve local support for schools, but also help provide vital services for children and a more stable personal and family foundation upon which learning could take place.

District leaders “cannot lift our children up to their full potential by themselves,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at the press conference. “We need help in that work.”

The district is looking to the faith-based partners to provide services such as tutoring, coaching, chaperoning; deliver before and after school support; donate uniforms and other goods; and highlight teachers at their institutions through announcements and bulletins.

R. Khari Brown, a professor of sociology at Wayne State, said the faith community is already deeply ingrained in Detroit in a variety of ways.

“There are a lot of community centers that closed down over the years in the city, and most churches in the city provide some sort of programming,” he said. “They provide backpacks and school supplies, so [the partnership] makes sense.”

Religion is also a large part of the culture of many African Americans, he said, and a significant force in a district where 81 percent of the students were black in 2016-2017.

“Most African Americans want their churches to be involved on the ills that disproportionately affect black people.” he said.

While other communities might balk at such intermingling of church and state, Brown said he believes that it is a “non issue” in this case because the religious institutions are not receiving money from the district.

The ACLU of Michigan said it had no comment at this time but that the organization hopes to “continue to learn more” about the district’s initiative.

Vitti said a more explicit district-faith community partnership could provide both protection and support for Detroit’s children.

“What I’m talking about is developing a stronger safety net to ensure that what students are not receiving in homes, what students are not receiving in school, can be addressed through the faith-based community,” Vitti said. “When we go back to when the city was at its peak, we worked together as a team to lift children up. When children fell through the cracks, there was a safety net to catch them and lift them back up. That happened through the school system, through the churches, the synagogues.”

Vitti said the initiative is part of his larger effort to align schools and the community more closely. Since starting in his position as superintendent in May of last year, he has been pressing programs like the parent academy.

The academy will provide parents with lessons on subjects like what to ask during parent-teacher conferences, how to create stronger readers, how to fill out FAFSA paperwork, and even how to print a resume. Vitti said most of all, it would empower parents to pursue educational goals for their children, even if they weren’t the best students themselves.

“Every parent knows education is important, but parents don’t know how to navigate the system often, and they feel hypocritical when they push their children when they know they didn’t do well in school,” he said.  

Vitti said he envisions a time when faith-based institutions could house some of the parent services.

He said he also sees the faith community working side by side with the district’s 5,000 role models initiative. The program is recruiting volunteers to work with middle and high school African American and Hispanic students, and plans to have sponsors in each school to work with students daily, taking them on field trips and providing an open line of communication.