parting ways

After voting down school closures, de Blasio appointee to education panel is out

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

After casting a deciding vote blocking the education department from closing two Queens schools last month, T. Elzora Cleveland resigned from the city’s education oversight board.

The February vote represented an embarrassing and unusual rebuke of the administration’s plans, since Mayor Bill de Blasio appoints the majority of the board’s members — including Cleveland. And while the reason for Cleveland’s departure after four years on the Panel for Educational Policy was not completely clear, the timing suggests she may have run up against the limits of City Hall’s patience for dissent on its school closure proposals.

City Hall confirmed on Friday that Cleveland had stepped down. Cleveland did not respond to requests for comment.

“After four years of serving on the PEP, Ms. Cleveland submitted her resignation this week and we are actively working to appoint a new panel member to fill her seat,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a City Hall spokeswoman. “We are grateful for her service and commitment to our city’s students.”

At the panel’s regular meeting last month, members were set to vote on 13 closure proposals — including eight struggling schools in de Blasio’s controversial Renewal turnaround program. It was the largest single round of proposed closures since de Blasio took office.

After more than seven hours of emotional testimony from hundreds of parents and elected officials, who had spent weeks lobbying against the closures, the panel narrowly blocked two of them: M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo and P.S./M.S. 42 R. Vernam, both in Queens. The final vote on both proposals was 6-6; Cleveland was the only mayoral appointee who voted “no.” (Another mayoral appointee, Isaac Carmignani, abstained.)

In an interview, Carmignani said he abstained because the two Queens schools were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and had shown some improvements. City Hall did not try sway his vote, Carmignani said, and he did not face blowback after the meeting. “I wasn’t under a lot of pressure one way or the other,” he said.

Cleveland has served on the board since 2014, when de Blasio named his first batch of appointees. Established in 2002, the panel was created after the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, successfully lobbied for central control of the country’s largest school system.

Bloomberg didn’t hesitate to exert his control over the board, booting three members in one fell swoop when a proposal to change grade promotion requirements appeared doomed to fail — a move that was dubbed the Monday Night Massacre.

But de Blasio promised his tenure would be different. “We want real debate. We want a panel that really listens,” de Blasio said when he appointed his members.

De Blasio has attempted to close many fewer schools than Bloomberg did, and several other de Blasio proposals have been voted down. Still, Cleveland had been a less reliable vote than other members when it came to the administration’s plans.

In 2015, she was among four members who rejected a proposal to allow a Success Academy charter school to open in Brooklyn. At the time, it was only the second instance of the panel voting down a city proposal.

Months earlier, Cleveland was one of five dissenters who voted against locating a charter school in the same building as three district middle schools, all of which were in the city’s Renewal turnaround program. The proposal still passed.

Stephanie Soto, another mayoral appointee, was not at February’s meeting and is no longer listed on the panel’s website. Jose Davila was introduced as a new member at that meeting.

Meanwhile, the city’s new schools Chancellor Richard Carranza is expected to start April 2.


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”