opinion

Chancellor Fariña on why losing mayoral control ‘would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As the leader charged with providing a high-quality education to 1.1 million New York City students, I have to be honest with you:

Our school system is headed for disaster. You may have heard something in the news about mayoral control. Let me explain what it is and why losing it would be devastating.

The state government must act to keep the mayor in charge of our schools by June 30. If they don’t, the entire system will slide back into the old, decentralized structure we had before. That would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption. I should know, I’ve been working in city schools since the 1960s. I saw what happened before 2002 when we put the mayor in charge.

First and foremost, today, the leadership of our schools makes sense. I am accountable for continued progress in our schools and the mayor is my boss. That means New Yorkers know exactly who to blame if things aren’t going well and exactly who to call when they need something done. It also means that the largest school system in the nation has an executive with real power to shake things up, innovate on behalf of students and families, and make wholesale changes that benefit all corners of the city.

If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress. Our schools have never been stronger, and all that we have accomplished together will be at risk. Instead, power will be in the hands of 32 separate community school boards. That will mean a mountain of new red tape and surging costs due to inefficiency. According to the Independent Budget Office, costs dropped 22 percent after mayoral control was enacted in 2002.

But that’s not the worst of it. The most catastrophic thing is how our students will suffer.

With 32 separate entities in charge of the “system,” it will be nothing more than a constant struggle for resources. Some communities will win and some will lose. Some communities will get more than their share and some will be asked to do with much less. If parents think that’s unfair, who can they complain to?

Having 32 separate school boards is ripe for corruption. Isolated districts are small enough to be taken over by factions who aren’t putting the best interest of kids first. In the past, these boards too frequently ended up as personal property that could be bartered and traded, and used to reward cronies. Under the old system, entire districts did not have well-trained teachers or necessary materials. This isn’t just speculation – again, I was there.

Managers, appointed by the local school boards, inflated the price of contracts to generate lucrative kickbacks that took money directly away from students and siphoned money from taxpayers. One district alone stole $6 million from students, paying 81 employees for jobs they never showed up to. In another, school safety was entrusted to a high-level gang member.

Before mayoral control, graduation rates hovered around 50 percent and many schools simply were not safe. Students in the city consistently did worse than their peers across the state on standardized tests.

In the 15 years since mayors have controlled the school system, New Yorkers have seen a turnaround that has been nothing less than stunning.

Right now, New York City’s graduation rate is the highest in history. The drop-rate rate is the lowest it has ever been. For the first time ever, our students beat the rest of the state on English tests. Crime in schools has fallen 35 percent over the last five years. And we have the highest-ever college enrollment rate.

Mayor de Blasio has brought change to every district in the city. In two short years, we have added free, full-day, high-quality pre-K for every 4-year-old. Now, we are working to do the same with 3-K, instruction for 3-year-olds.

We have after-school programs for every middle schooler and we’ve made investments in school facilities—guaranteeing that every classroom is air conditioned and every school has a gym. All of these accomplishments, and many others, are a direct result of mayoral control.

I want to be clear: This isn’t about the mayor I work for. Mayoral control is vital for New Yorkers no matter who the mayor is.

There is only one proven way to run the New York City school system — that’s putting our schools in the hands of a duly elected, accountable leader, the mayor of New York. The future of our City is at stake unless Albany takes immediate action.

Carmen Fariña is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

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.”