Richard Buery, architect of New York City’s massive pre-K expansion, is leaving City Hall

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, pictured during a school visit in 2014, announced this week that he is leaving his post.

Richard Buery, the deputy mayor who oversaw the de Blasio administration’s celebrated expansion of pre-kindergarten while also trying to ease tensions with the charter-school sector, is stepping down, the mayor said Thursday.

After initially turning down the job — which offered lower pay and greater public scrutiny than in his role as head of the Children’s Aid Society — Buery agreed in early 2014 to pilot the rapid buildout of the city’s free pre-K program, which was the centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term agenda. Within a year and a half, Buery had helped the city create about 50,000 additional pre-K seats while avoiding any major mishaps or controversies — a feat that helped the mayor glide to reelection this month.

“Never before have I had a job where I had 9 o’clock evening daily phone call with my team,” Buery said Thursday at a press conference where de Blasio announced several changes to his cabinet ahead of his second term. Despite its intensity, Buery called the job “an honor and a pleasure.”

Buery — who, until now, was the highest-ranking black official in City Hall and a rumored contender to be the next school’s chief — oversaw several other education initiatives beyond pre-K. Those included the creation of 215 “community schools,” which offer wellness and social services for students and their families; the expansion of after-school programs for middle-school students; and the establishment of a “children’s cabinet” to coordinate the efforts of dozens of city agencies that interact with young people.

More recently, he helped start a new city-run preschool program for 3-year-olds, modeled off the pre-K expansion — an idea the mayor attributed to Buery.

“Richard will be forever remembered as the person who started that initiative on its path,” de Blasio said Thursday.

Buery also played a crucial role as an intermediary between City Hall and the city’s charter-school sector, which have clashed since de Blasio took office promising to reign in the publicly funded but privately run schools. He was ideally positioned to play peacemaker: Before joining the de Blasio administration, he had helped found a Children’s Aid Society charter school, and he counted the leaders of the some of the city’s largest charter networks as friends.

He walked a fine line in his informal mediator role. For instance, he joined the mayor in opposing a state plan to allow more new charter schools to open, yet he sided with charters in their push to receive public money to pay for building rental.

“In Rich, we had a natural ally,” said Steven Wilson, chief executive officer of the Ascend charter network, in an email. “He understood our constraints and challenges, and was always willing to give voice to them with the Mayor.”

“If the administration doesn’t bring in someone similarly experienced, intelligent, and supportive,” he added, “it will be a loss to the sector.”

Yet, not everyone in the charter sector has had a warm relationship with Buery.

Dan Loeb, chairman of Success Academy charter schools — the network that has feuded most bitterly with the de Blasio administration — upbraided Buery in racially charged emails recently published by Politico New York. In a June email, Loeb called Buery “smug and satisfied” and an “apologist for the failing status quo” that leaves “poor black kids” with an inadequate education.

In an interview Thursday, Buery told Chalkbeat that he had tried to bridge the divide between members of the charter sector and City Hall, but the “really toxic, ugly politics that we have” sometimes got in the way.

“There’s still too much unnecessary negativity and ad hominem attacks and I don’t think it’s productive,” he said. “We’d do a lot better if we spent more time talking and less time yelling.”

Buery arrived at City Hall with a compelling backstory.

The son of immigrants from Panama, he grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, before graduating from Stuyvesant High School and enrolling in Harvard at age 16. He later attended Yale Law School, taught at an orphanage in Zimbabwe, and founded multiple youth-focused nonprofit groups.

Buery will remain in his post for the next few weeks while the administration seeks a replacement. In the interview with Chalkbeat, he shot down any suggestion that he might become the city’s next schools chancellor — “I never have aspired to that role” — but also said he did not have another job lined up. 

In his next role, he said, he is seeking a way to push back against the policies of President Donald Trump, which he called “the most un-American administration of my lifetime.”

“In one way it’s a terrible time, a challenging time for the country,” Buery said. “But in another way it’s an incredible opportunity in the country to stand up and articulate the values we believe in and stand up for those values. And I want to continue being a part of that.”

Monica Disare contributed reporting.

Student Voice

Boasting impressive resumes, five Newark students compete for a school board seat

PHOTO: Newark Public Schools
Top row: Amanda Amponsah, Nailah Cornish, Andre Ferreira. Bottom row: Shalom Jimoh, Emmanuel Ogbonnaya.

Earlier this year, Newark residents elected three new members to the city’s re-empowered school board. Now, public school students can choose one of their own to join the board, which in February became the district’s governing body for the first time in more than two decades.

Students have until midnight on Tuesday, June 5, to vote online for a rising 12th-grader to represent their interests on the school board. The winning student representative will provide the board with student perspectives on district policy, but will not be permitted to vote.

Eligible candidates are required to have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average, a satisfactory disciplinary record, and to submit peer and faculty recommendations. Last week, the five candidates participated in a debate, which can be heard here.

The candidates are:

  • Amanda Amponsah, of University High School, who is class president, captain of the softball team, a member of the marching band, and an aspiring pediatric oncologist.
  • Nailah Cornish, of Barringer Academy of Arts and Humanities, who plays basketball and volleyball, runs her own modeling program, and plans to study law and business in college.
  • Andre Ferreira, of Science Park High School, who is a soccer player, debater, and vice president of the student leadership organization. He plans to major in political science and aspires to work for the United Nations.
  • Shalom Jimoh, of Weequahic High School, who immigrated from Nigeria, and is now a member of the student government council, the National Honor Society, and the track and volleyball teams. She plans to study medicine and theater arts in college.
  • Emmanuel Ogbonnaya, of Weequahic High School, who serves as school photographer, soccer team captain, and is a member of the National Honor Society. Emmanuel wants to study engineering, and then start a company that combines photography, architecture, and engineering.

The winner will join the board at an historic moment. Control of the district reverted to the city in February, when state officials determined the district had met its requirements for home rule. The district had been run by the state for 22 years prior.

Last year, more than 1,200 students  — or about 13 percent of Newark public high school students — voted for a student representative to the school board, which then functioned in an advisory capacity only. This year, a Newark student group tried to ramp up turnout with text messages and a video posted on Facebook encouraging voting.

“The student representative will work closely with administrators and board members to make sure that all student voices are heard,” according to a video produced in advance of the vote by the Youth Media Symposium at the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark civic-engagement group. “Now that we have local control, this is more crucial than ever.”

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,381 votes had been cast. District officials said the winner will be announced Friday, and will be introduced publicly at the board’s June 12 meeting. The representative will then be required to attend at least four board meetings and various district events during the 2018–2019 academic year.

devos watch

Asked again about school staff referring students to ICE, DeVos says ‘I don’t think they can’

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill, June 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Pressed to clarify her stance on whether school staff could report undocumented students to immigration authorities, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos avoided giving a clear answer before eventually saying, “I don’t think they can.”

It was an odd exchange before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, during a hearing that was meant to focus on budget issues but offered a prime opportunity for Senate Democrats to grill DeVos on other topics.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, focused on DeVos’s comments a few weeks ago at House hearing where she said that it was “a school decision” whether to report undocumented students to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil rights groups responded sharply, calling it an inaccurate description of the department’s own rules and the Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, that says schools must educate undocumented students.

In a statement after that hearing, DeVos seemed to walk back her comments, saying, “Schools are not, and should never become, immigration enforcement zones.” DeVos also referenced the Plyler case on Tuesday, while initially avoiding multiple chances to offer a yes or no response to whether school officials could call ICE on a student.

In response to DeVos’s latest remarks, her spokesperson Liz Hill said, “She did not avoid the question and was very clear schools are not, and should not ever become, immigration enforcement zones. Every child should feel safe going to school.”

Here’s the full exchange between DeVos and Murphy:

Murphy: Let me ask you about a question that you were presented with in a House hearing around the question of whether teachers should refer undocumented students to ICE for immigration enforcement. In the hearing I think you stated that that should be up to each individual state or school district. And then you released a follow-up statement in which you said that, ‘our nation has both a legal and moral obligation to educate every child,’ and is well-established under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler and has been in my consistent position since day one. I’m worried that that statement is still not clear on this very important question of whether or not a teacher or a principal is allowed to call ICE to report an undocumented student under federal law. Can a teacher or principal call ICE to report an undocumented student under current federal law?

DeVos: I will refer back again to the settled case in Plyler vs. Doe in 1982, which says students that are not documented have the right to an education. I think it’s incumbent on us to ensure that those students have a safe and secure environment to attend school, to learn, and I maintain that.

Murphy: Let me ask the question again: Is it OK – you’re the secretary of education, there are a lot of schools that want guidance, and want to understand what the law is — is it OK for a teacher or principal to call ICE to report an undocumented student?

DeVos: I think a school is a sacrosanct place for student to be able to learn and they should be protected there.

Murphy: You seem to be very purposefully not giving a yes or no answer. I think there’s a lot of educators that want to know whether this is permissible.

DeVos: I think educators know in their hearts that they need to ensure that students have a safe place to learn.

Murphy: Why are you so — why are you not answering the question?

DeVos: I think I am answering the question.

Murphy: The question is yes or no. Can a principal call ICE on a student? Is that allowed under federal law? You’re the secretary of education.

DeVos: In a school setting, a student has the right to be there and the right to learn, and so everything surrounding that should protect that and enhance that student’s opportunity and that student’s environment.

Murphy: So they can’t call ICE?

DeVos: I don’t think they can.

Murphy: OK, thank you.