help wanted

Mayor de Blasio wants New York City’s next schools chief to be like Fariña — but finding a replacement won’t be easy

PHOTO: Rob Bennett, mayoral photography office
Chancellor Fariña and Mayor de Blasio at Queens' P.S. 239.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a search for a new schools chief, he said he would look for someone very much like retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. But as the search intensifies, that approach could pose a dilemma for the mayor, and make it harder to find someone well-suited to running and improving a system that sees itself as a model for school districts across the country.

On the one hand, the search for someone in Fariña’s mold would make the position ideal for a proven leader from within the department. But some observers said there is a dearth of internal options, and that few of Fariña’s deputies have the right background or public persona to take on the role.

At the same time, looking outside the education department could present its own challenges, especially if the job will emphasize carrying out an existing agenda rather than encourage making key changes to a system that has made some incremental gains in recent years but still faces big inequities.

“If you’re just going to keep the trains running on time that’s not going to be a huge incentive to run an education system, even if it’s New York City,” said Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland who was considered for the job four years ago. “The best person is probably someone who’s been a lifer in the [education department] who they trust.”

The appeal of running America’s largest school system — which is by itself the size of a large city — might seem obvious. It represents a chance to shape education policy in the national spotlight under a mayor who has shown an interest in ambitious education programs, including the widely-praised launch of free prekindergarten for every family.

But candidates might also be dissuaded by an arrangement where most major policy initiatives in recent years have been handed down from City Hall, there is a relatively short time frame to implement changes, and a job description that suggests the next chancellor will be tasked with continuing the existing blueprint rather than making his or her own mark.

Meanwhile, the next chancellor will have to tackle difficult problems that the current administration has struggled to address: how to serve a growing number of homeless students, yawning achievement gaps, and persistent requests from charter schools for more space to operate. On top of that, whoever takes the job might have less funding to tackle those issues.

“We’re in for some really horrible budget times with the new tax law and there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Washington to cut budgets,” said Clara Hemphill, director of education policy and Insideschools at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

Still, whoever lands the job will inherit a school system that has enjoyed relative stability and progress: Test scores and graduation rates have incrementally climbed, and perhaps the mayor’s most ambitious education initiative — universal pre-K — has been widely hailed as a success. The relative calm means the next chancellor will be taking over a system many consider to be on the right track, though that could complicate efforts push through more ambitious — and potentially risky — changes.

In many ways, that legacy is exactly what de Blasio wanted from Fariña. In contrast with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who tried to systematically disrupt the system, Fariña was brought in to rebuild trust with educators and lend a steady hand. Some observers say she accomplished that mission — conducting legendary school visits to gauge the system’s health instead of leaning on reams of data, repairing the department’s relationship with the teachers union, and focusing on small-bore policies to encourage collaboration rather than competition between schools and educators.

But critics say the administration has never articulated a clear vision for improving the system as a whole, refused to tackle key equity issues like school segregation head on, and struggled with an expensive program to improve low-performing schools that has at best achieved mixed results — challenges a new chancellor must contend with.

Another legacy, some observers said, is that Fariña has not set up a natural successor. The New School’s Hemphill said that few of the department’s top deputies — including Dorita Gibson, Fariña’s second in command — have the visibility or political savvy to take on the job. And Josh Wallack, the deputy who helped execute the mayor’s signature pre-K expansion, does not meet de Blasio’s requirement that the chancellor must be an educator.

Finding an outsider to take the post could present challenges of its own. Not only is the chancellor’s salary is relatively low compared with some other school systems, which could give pause to the head of a higher-paying district, but also City Hall has engineered many of this administration’s high-profile education efforts.

Pedro Noguera, a UCLA professor who was reportedly floated for the role, said that the administration’s lack of a unifying vision for the system dissuaded him from considering the position.

“The items on their broad list – I have no objection to those,” he said in an interview. “But I don’t think they add up to the strategy that the system needs.” (Noguera said he was contacted by a third party about the job, but not directly by city officials.)

Still, many observers are optimistic about the mayor’s odds of fielding strong candidates. Fariña’s predecessor, Dennis Walcott, said running the nation’s largest school system will be difficult to resist — and there’s plenty of time for the next chancellor to make their mark.

“The person will be in charge of the largest municipal agency in the country,” he said. “The mayor is term limited, but he has a long four years in front of him.”

Future of Schools

What it could mean for Indianapolis Public Schools if Ferebee takes a new job

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Lews Ferebee

The revelation that Superintendent Lewis Ferebee was a finalist for the top job in the Los Angeles school district will have broad implications at a critical moment for Indianapolis Public Schools — even though he decided not to pursue the job.

Although Ferebee has withdrawn his name from contention in Los Angeles, he still could be an option for other districts. As U.S. News and World Report’s Lauren Camera reported earlier this month, about a dozen cities are on the hunt for new leaders, including large districts such as Houston and smaller districts such as Washington, D.C.

Five years into his tenure as superintendent of Indiana’s largest district, Ferebee’s agenda has been ambitious, potentially making him a desirable candidate for other school districts. He has spearheaded a radical new approach that is transforming the city’s schools by creating innovation schools, which are considered part of the district but managed by charter or nonprofit operators.

In Indianapolis, Ferebee has faced many of the same issues that urban districts across the country are grappling with, such as declining enrollment, pressure to improve academic results, and severe budget crunches.

But while he may have an itch to move on from Indianapolis, his administration is in the midst of closing nearly half of the district’s high schools, and the district is pursuing plans to ask voters for a dramatic boost in school funding.

Here’s how all those changes could be altered by the news that Ferebee is at least weighing other job opportunities.

It’s not a surprise that he was considering a new job.

Urban superintendents don’t often stay for long — the average tenure is just over three years, according to the Council of Great City Schools — so it’s not surprising that a relatively young superintendent who is drawing national attention might be interested in other jobs.

For superintendents to move up in their careers, hopping to new cities is fairly typical.

A native of South Carolina, Ferebee, 43, spent most of his career in North Carolina before moving in 2013 to take the helm in Indianapolis. He has few ties to the city, and critics and supporters alike have long recognized that Indianapolis is likely just one rung on his career ladder.

For school districts where leaders are interested in offering a portfolio of school options, Ferebee’s track record in Indianapolis — and his increasing national prominence — could be particularly appealing.

In 2016, Ferebee was profiled in Education Week as a leader to learn from, and last year, he was chosen as a fellow by The Broad Academy, a leadership development program supported charter advocate and philanthropist Eli Broad.

But his tenure in Indianapolis hasn’t gone perfectly.

Ferebee’s administration has also had some significant stumbles that cast doubt on whether he would be ready for a larger district. Last year, he announced plans to appeal to voters to increase local taxes and school funding. In the face of pushback, however, the district first reduced its request and then suspended the campaign. Now, leaders are hoping that the Indy Chamber will be able to help them craft a plan that will win voter support.

If he left, it might put Indy in a bind — temporarily.

If Ferebee took another job, it would put Indianapolis leaders in a tough position. The school board would need to find his replacement at the same time the district is facing a host of pressing issues, including high school closings, a school board election, and a campaign to convince taxpayers to increase local school funding.

And he could take some of his top deputies with him, as he did when he came to Indianapolis, leaving the district short-handed at a particularly challenging time.

The current board has largely been on the same page with Ferebee when it comes to the most controversial initiatives in the district, such as creating innovation schools and closing high schools. Board members would likely choose a candidate who would sustain those policies.

But a lot of his most controversial changes could stay in place.

A new superintendent would have huge sway over the district’s future direction. But many of the changes Ferebee has led would be difficult to unwind. Innovation schools, for example, have contracts that last several years, and many of them are also authorized as charter schools, so the district would not immediately be able to back away from the innovation strategy.

Plus, innovation schools have strong support from other players in Indianapolis, such as lawmakers and The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that led the push for the hybrid model.

It is also unlikely that the district would change course on its plan to close high schools because the new superintendent would almost certainly take the helm after the painful process of closing schools was already complete.

It would make the November election of the school board more important.

Three of the seven school board seats are up for election in November, and it is likely that the newly elected board would choose Ferebee’s replacement. It’s not yet clear who is running and how strong the competition might be, but the outcome would be especially important if Ferebee leaves.

If he does take another job, it could be an opportunity for critics of his administration. In recent elections, supporters of Ferebee have dominated. But there is a nascent opposition movement that could be influential in the fall election.

Even though he is staying, the honeymoon is over.

Even with Ferebee withdrawing his name from consideration, the revelation that he was interested in the job in Los Angeles could have a ripple effect. It raises questions about how long he plans to stay in Indianapolis and whether he is applying for other positions.

The new uncertainty about Ferebee’s commitment to Indianapolis comes at a particularly tough moment. In the face of a budget deficit of about $26 million, the administration could soon impose cuts across the district. Earlier this month, the district offered $20,000 buyouts to teachers who retire, and Ferebee has said they are considering other cuts, such as hiring freezes and furloughs for administrators. Those cutbacks will be extra painful if school staff and parents lose faith in the administration.

It also could have broad implications for the campaign to raise more money for schools. After district leaders initially fumbled plans to ask voters for additional money, they are planning to put a referendum on the ballot in November. For that measure to succeed, they must convince community members to vote in favor of raising their own taxes, a difficult sell that will also be made harder if the superintendent loses trust from the community.

contract details

Antwan Wilson being paid $60,000 to consult for Denver Public Schools

Antwan Wilson visits a fifth grade math class at the Brightwood Education Campus in Washington on his first day as D.C. schools chancellor. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Denver school district is paying former administrator Antwan Wilson $60,000 to be a part-time consultant for 12 weeks to help to build a strategic plan for a career and technical education program, according to Wilson’s contract.

The contract shows the district determined that Wilson, who was recently forced to resign as Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, was the only person qualified for the consultant job.

“We considered other local or national consulting organizations that could provide these services, but determined they would not be able to meet our needs,” Denver Public Schools Chief Operating Officer David Suppes wrote as justification for why the contract was not put out for competitive bid. Chalkbeat obtained the contract in an open records request.

Suppes cited Wilson’s years of experience managing large urban school districts, as well as his experience leading secondary schools in Denver. Wilson was principal of the now-closed Montbello High School and worked for five years as an assistant superintendent in Denver before becoming superintendent in Oakland, California, and then chancellor in D.C.

He resigned as chancellor in February after it came to light that he skirted the district’s competitive school lottery process to get his oldest daughter into a high-performing school.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a previous Chalkbeat interview that Wilson was a good fit for the consultant job because “he is probably the country’s foremost thinker on these issues around career and technical education and concurrent enrollment,” which allows high school students to take college classes and receive credit for free.

Wilson’s resume says he ran Denver Public Schools’ concurrent enrollment program during his tenure as the assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness from 2009 to 2014. It also notes he led the district’s career and technical education program.

The number of students taking concurrent enrollment classes increased during his tenure, his resume says. Graduation rates increased and dropout rates decreased, partly due to efforts to open new alternative schools, which the district calls “multiple pathways schools,” it says.

Boasberg said Wilson will be helping to expand the district’s career and technical program, called CareerConnect, to those schools.

Wilson’s consultant contract says he will “support the strategic planning process, including stakeholder engagement, evaluation of successful practices used elsewhere, and assisting the team in thinking through systemic needs for the thoughtful growth of the program.”

The contract notes that Wilson’s position is grant funded. It says his fee includes a $69 per-diem expense and $178 in daily lodging expenses. His fee is based on a $150-per-hour rate, it says.

The contract specifies that Wilson will work two days a week for eight hours a day.

In his justification for why the contract was not competitive, Suppes wrote that local consulting companies that have worked with Denver Public Schools in the past “would not have experience in this area” and would have been more expensive at $175 to $200 an hour.

National consulting companies, Suppes wrote, “are often strong in doing this type of work, but might not have the skill depth available.” Plus, he wrote, the national consultants would have charged two to four times as much as the district is paying Wilson.