First Person

Mayor de Blasio’s schools-chief search is shrouded in secrecy — but it doesn’t have to be

PHOTO: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office

When Bill de Blasio was running for mayor, he promised to let the public weigh in on his picks for New York City’s schools chief before appointing them.

“We need a chancellor who is presented to the public, not just forced down our throat,” he said on the campaign trail in 2012.

But he changed his tune after being elected, and has decided to keep the chancellor search private. On Tuesday, parents and advocates will hold a rally to demand that de Blasio give them a say in his current search to replace retiring schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

If the mayor did open the search to the public, what might it look like?

One option is what seems to be occurring by default: names thrown about largely in the dark, handicapped based on race, gender, and reputation. This messy debate creates more heat than light and advantages those with inside information over ordinary citizens. Hardly the public process advocates have in mind.

But there are other ways. Public superintendent searches are routine for most school districts run by elected school boards. While state law gives New York City’s mayor the authority to single-handedly appoint the chancellor, de Blasio could voluntarily borrow from districts with more open processes.

In those districts, community consensus is usually reached on a job description with desired qualifications. The post is widely advertised, often by a specialized superintendent search firm that conducts an initial review of confidential applications. A list of qualified candidates is presented to the Board of Education, which further culls the still-private list to arrive at three to five finalists.

After the candidates are given a chance to inform their current employers, they are publicly announced and interviews scheduled. In the ensuing weeks, the public and press explore finalists’ records. Members of the screening committee may even visit their home districts. Candidate interviews are often televised or streamed online. The position is then offered after a period of post-interview public comment and board deliberation.

The process can be bumpy, but it gets done. Public confidence is established through participation and a full vetting of the candidates. And because the process is common in most places, the finalists expect this type of scrutiny — they can even use it as an opportunity to renegotiate their contracts by threatening to leave for greener pastures.

So how could de Blasio adapt some of those practices for New York?

One idea is to appoint an independent panel that could submit a list of finalists for the mayor to choose from. The panel could consist of students, parents, educators, and community members, or perhaps each of the five borough presidents.

Another idea is to let the city council weigh in on the candidates. The mayor could nominate his pick for chancellor, who would then face the council’s education committee for questioning before the full council votes on the appointment — just as happens with the president’s cabinet nominations.

It is not too late to institute any of these proposals for a public search.

A thoughtful, transparent process would be a win-win for the mayor, enhancing his progressive credentials while allowing him to remain in the driver’s seat. A public search would also be a win for the city and the next chancellor, who would arrive with more of a popular mandate than if she or he was vetted and hired behind closed doors.

We only have to look back a few years, to the lamentable appointment of Cathie Black, to understand how a unilateral appointment can quickly go off the rails. A public process makes sense, and the moment is now.

David C. Bloomfield is professor of education leadership, law, and policy at Brooklyn College and The CUNY Graduate Center.

Voter guide

7 questions Chicagoans should ask their aldermanic candidates about schools

PHOTO: Michal Czerwonka

Big education policy questions about school board control, charter expansion and struggling neighborhood schools have surfaced repeatedly in the race for Chicago mayor. But the city’s aldermanic races, on the whole, tend to be less focused on schools, because some voters don’t connect aldermen to education decisions in their community.

But while aldermanic power is limited when it comes to schools, those officials can still play an important role at Chicago Public Schools and in their wards, as we detailed here.

Here are seven questions and background on them that education-focused voters can ask their aldermanic candidates.

What do you see as the role of an alderman when it comes to Chicago Public Schools?

Legally speaking, alderman don’t have much power over the school district or schools in their ward. They can’t set budgets, hire or fire principals, or decide whether schools open or close. But that doesn’t mean they’re powerless. A dedicated and concerned alderman can do a lot as an advocate for schools.

Related: Chicago alderman have limited power over public schools — but can still play an important role

What do you know about the schools in your ward?

This question can measure how well a candidate or incumbent has engaged with and assessed the needs of area schools. You can’t expect someone to start cooking solutions for area schools if they lack the basic ingredient of familiarity.

How will you spend your aldermanic “menu” money?

Every year, the city gives each alderman a $1.32 budget for infrastructure improvements, known as aldermanic menu money. The ward bosses have discretion over what projects they use it for. Some have tapped the funds for school improvements.  

How will you work to strengthen Local School Councils?

Without an elected school board, the councils are some of the only ways parents and community members can participate in decision-making about their schools. The councils drive school improvement plans, set budgets, and evaluate and hire (or fire) principals. But participation is notoriously low and uneven across the district.

How would you respond to a proposal for a new charter school in your ward?

Aldermen can’t force the school board’s hand on decisions about whether or not to approve charter proposals, but they can express their wishes to the mayor’s office and school board. They also can make it difficult for charters to open in their ward if the charter needs a zoning change to move into or build a new facility.

How will you help attract local families to neighborhood schools losing enrollment?

A district report released in December identifies 238 “underenrolled” schools in Chicago. Many of them are neighborhood schools that serve students living within their attendance boundaries.

How would you help make your ward a place where families with school-aged children want and can afford to live?

Housing costs are one of many reasons families have been leaving Chicago, and a lack of affordable housing in a community could pose a barrier to families with children moving there. Getting a sense of your alderman’s housing policies and approaches to affordability will help discern priorities and seriousness about helping families afford living in your community.

big plans

Four things you should know about the new Memphis plan to expand district support to all schools

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Shelby County Schools board members heard an ambitious plan Tuesday to expand district support for students across all its nearly 150 schools.

The proposal would expand the district’s flagship turnaround program, the Innovation Zone; test all first-graders for gifted education; give hand-held electronic devices to more high school students; and offer more advanced courses. The recommendations are the first from the district’s new chief academic officer, Antonio Burt, who was appointed in September.

“We’re really focused on system-wide equity,” he said. “We can really switch the conversation from equity to really focusing on equity in action.”

In recent years, Memphis has become a model in Tennessee’s school turnaround efforts. But district officials believe Shelby County Schools has not effectively scaled those lessons up to impact more students more quickly. Burt said his plan will fill in those gaps.

Burt did not break down how much these initiatives would cost, but incoming interim superintendent Joris Ray said the proposals would anchor the district’s budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year.

Here is what you need to know:

All first-grade students would be tested to see if they are eligible for CLUE, the district’s gifted education program.

Currently, teachers pick students to be tested for admittance into a program that promotes higher-level grade work for students from preschool to high school.

Burt said the way students are chosen has led to wide disparities in the racial makeup of the program. Though white students make up 7 percent of the district’s population, they make up 38 percent of the students in CLUE. Black students make up 77 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 45 percent of students in the program.

Nationally, black students are far less likely to be placed in gifted programs, even if they have the same test scores as their white peers, and especially if their teacher is white, according to a 2016 study at Vanderbilt University.

For the first time, all Memphis schools identified by the state as low performing will get additional money.

Eleven schools will be added to the district’s Innovation Zone, known for improving test scores.

The iZone pumps about $600,000 per school for teacher bonuses, for more resources to combat the effects of poverty, and for principals to have more say over which teachers they hire.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Antonio Burt became assistant superintendent in 2017 over the Innovation Zone and other struggling schools within Shelby County Schools. He is now the district’s academic chief.

Some of the schools Burt wants to add have been languishing on the state’s list since it was first created in 2012, but have not received substantial support.

As some schools are being added to the iZone, others have improved their performance, and are no longer eligible for additional state funding. Shelby County Schools, which has covered the reduction in funding, for the first time plans to gradually wean 13 schools off that extra support. Burt vowed to monitor those schools to make sure they don’t slip again.

Scroll down to the bottom of the story to see which schools will be affected.

Burt’s plan also would combine Hamilton Elementary and Hamilton Middle into a K-8 school next year, and separate Raleigh-Egypt Middle/High into two schools again after a charter operator moved out the neighborhood. The Hamilton school proposal is also part of outgoing Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s recommendation to consolidate some schools.

Every student in nine high schools would get a hand-held device or laptop this fall, with a goal to expand to every school by the 2024-25 school year.

The district hasn’t decided whether it would be laptops, tablets, or some other device, but officials say students should have more access to technology.

“I think about children in the municipalities and across the nation… they have a device in their hand,” said Ray. “All their textbooks, they’re loaded to one device. So we need to in Shelby County Schools increase technology and give our students the opportunity to compete worldwide.”

But board members cautioned the district should have a robust learning plan for those devices.

“It’s more than just putting a device in hand,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.

Every high school will have two Advanced Placement courses for college credit by school year 2020-21.

Students from poor families are more likely to attend a high school with fewer advanced courses, according to a 2018 district report. Burt wants to change that.

The plan calls for more teachers in every high school to be trained to lead an honors, Advanced Placement, or pre-Advanced Placement class.

Below are the schools that would be added to and removed from the iZone. Read the district’s full presentation below.

The schools that would be added to the iZone are:

  • LaRose Elementary
  • Dunbar Elementary
  • Getwell Elementary
  • Hawkins Mill Elementary
  • Woodstock Middle
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Craigmont Middle
  • Wooddale High
  • Sheffield High
  • Oakhaven High
  • Manassas High

These schools would be cycled out of the iZone:

  • Cherokee Elementary
  • Treadwell Elementary
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Ford Road Elementary
  • Westhaven Elementary
  • Douglass K-8
  • Chickasaw Middle
  • Treadwell Middle
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Hamilton Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Mitchell High
  • Melrose High