rules and regs

Investigation of activist principal has free-speech advocates asking what politics are allowed at school

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman

The strange saga of a Park Slope principal accused of promoting communism took another turn Wednesday, when her request for a temporary halt to the probe against her was denied.

Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate, is known for her activism, particularly around the issue of school segregation. But the Department of Education says now she’s gone too far by sharing her political views at school and “actively recruiting” students into a communist organization.

“We lost the battle, not the war,” said Bloomberg’s attorney Jeanne Mirer after the judge’s decision to allow the investigation to proceed.

The war, it seems, will partly depend on whether Bloomberg violated D-130 — a Chancellor’s regulation that prohibits school employees from “being involved in any activities, including fundraising, on behalf of any candidate, candidates, slate of candidates or political organization/committee during working hours.”

The city claims, among other allegations, that Bloomberg violated the regulation by advocating on behalf of the Progressive Labor Party, a political organization with communist ties, at school. Bloomberg denies that and says she isn’t a member herself. But the case raises a larger question of what the regulation is meant to cover.

Mirer says a close read suggests it only bars election-related political activity — campaigning for a candidate, for instance — and not the type of organizing of which Bloomberg is accused.

If it did cover non-electoral politics, she said in court Wednesday, that would create a slippery slope for any educator who dared to voice a political view. “Any ideological belief could be the subject of a violation,” she warned.

Judge Paul Gardephe seemed unmoved by her argument. “I read the relevant parts [of D-130],” he said. “This lawsuit is not about whether D-130 is fair.”

But Mirer is not alone in worrying about how the regulation is being applied. Arthur Eisenberg, legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, is advising Mirer and has his own concerns about the free speech issues at play.

According to Eisenberg, the rules are the same for students, teachers and principals: “It’s well-established that school officials do not lose their First Amendment rights to speak out as citizens even when they are in school,” he said. “The standard is they can’t speak out in ways that are disruptive to the functioning of the school.”

Eisenberg declined to speculate on whether or not Bloomberg might have done that, but he said he was confident that D-130 could only apply to electoral politics.

A broader interpretation, he said, “puts the DOE in the position of having to regulate issue-oriented speech in ways that make it difficult to know how and where to draw the line.” Limiting free speech on issues that are political in nature, he said, could potentially impact student clubs that deal with gay rights, for instance, environmental causes, or racism. “And we know that can’t be right,” he said.

Eisenberg also questioned another line in the regulation quoted in the city’s court documents, which calls for a “posture of complete neutrality” on political candidates. Even if that were possible, he said, it wouldn’t be desirable.

“The obligation of an academic or teacher is to engage in critical judgment and to support those judgements with reasoning and fact,” Eisenberg said. “And that may be inconsistent with a principle of absolute neutrality.”

We asked the city’s law department what it made of Mirer’s argument that D-130 was meant to be more narrow in scope. Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the department, said he wasn’t familiar with argument and couldn’t comment.

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”