parent voice

Anxious parents challenge de Blasio’s school safety efforts in wake of Bronx killing

PHOTO: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña speak with parent leaders about school safety at the Harry Belafonte Library in Harlem on Monday.

Less than a week after a stabbing in a Bronx school left one student dead and another seriously injured, parents grilled Mayor Bill de Blasio at a public forum on his safety policies and what he is doing to control violence in their schools.

One by one, parents at a Harlem forum on Monday stood to question the mayor and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña: Would the city deploy more school psychologists? How can parents get better information on the safety of their schools? What happens if the police department’s school safety agents are not effective in patrolling a school?

The meeting, which was sometimes tense, was the first time the pair publicly heard from parents in the aftermath of the first student killing inside a school building in nearly 25 years.

“Anyone who’s had a child in our schools felt that moment very deeply,” de Blasio said in his opening remarks. “People all over the city want to know that every action is being taken.”

The killing at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation comes at a sensitive moment for de Blasio, who is running for reelection and has faced a drumbeat of criticism for school discipline reforms that discourage suspensions and other punitive responses to student misbehavior. On Monday, de Blasio repeatedly reassured a group of parent leaders — including PTA presidents and community education council members — acknowledging their concerns about school safety without retreating from his own policies.

Some systems across the country are wrestling with school discipline reforms, with the debate largely split between those who advocate for strict discipline and those, like the mayor, who believe that such policies are imposed much more harshly on students of color and fail to address underlying problems.

Building on de Blasio’s emphasis on “restorative” approaches, all schools will hold weekly trainings for the next three weeks to reinforce de-escalation and anti-bullying strategies, Chancellor Fariña said, and will also receive refreshers on how to appropriately report cases of bullying.

Officials said those training materials are still being created and details will be distributed to schools this week. “This will go a long way in reinforcing what we’ve already put in place,” Fariña said.

But Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, a parent who attended the forum, expressed skepticism that additional training would be enough. Taylor-Stephenson, the PTA president at Manhattan’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts — a school in the city’s Renewal turnaround program — said she has seen training have little effect in the past.

People go to training, and sign up,” she said in an interview, referring to one program designed to help staff welcome parents and get them involved in the school. “But they don’t implement it in schools.”

Throughout the morning, de Blasio appeared to be particularly sensitive to concerns that schools might not immediately respond to reports of bullying — a criticism that has emerged at the Wildlife Conservation school.

“We very much are sending a message but we will send it even more rigorously to everyone in the school community: Never ignore an instance of bullying,” de Blasio said. If parents have a concern about school safety, he later added, “they got to know who to talk to and we have to do a better job of making that go-to person available.”

The mayor did not offer new facts about last week’s stabbing, and said the public should hold off on drawing conclusions until the investigation is complete. Before a student was killed, parents at that school said there had been breakdowns in school safety, and officials had failed to properly respond to incidents of bullying. After the stabbing, frustrated parents confronted school safety officers who refused to let them in the building or pick up their children.

On Monday, other parents raised concerns that their own student’s schools feel chaotic — and that staff members sometimes struggle to intervene. Speaking at the forum, Renesha Westbrooks-Martinez, a parent at P.S. 45 in Brooklyn, described a visit where she saw students shoving each other and papers strewn across the room. “I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness the teacher has no control,’” she said.

In response, de Blasio said disorderly classrooms are “something we don’t accept,” though Fariña later suggested that “a lot of what happens in classrooms that sometimes can look wild is interactive learning.”

“Certainly, if kids are not being disciplined, or not paying attention, that’s on us,” Fariña added. “But a lot more parents need be aware that we really want to hear a lot more talking in classrooms, we want to hear students talking to each other, working together.”

Speaking with reporters after the forum, Westbrooks-Martinez said what she described was a disorderly classroom, not one where students were learning from each other.

“I know the difference,” she said.

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.