let the games begin

Here’s where the key players stand in New York’s renewed teacher evaluation battle

PHOTO: Darren McGee-Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with Assembly Speaker Heastie after his executive budget address.

New York’s top education leaders are gearing up for a spirited fight over teacher evaluations that will likely dominate education policy at end of this legislative session.

The Assembly introduced a bill on Thursday that would overhaul the state’s current evaluation system, which had already been put partially on hold, and prohibit state officials from requiring state test scores in teacher rating systems.

The state’s teachers unions rejoiced at the news, while other education advocates charged that the bill would make it difficult to hold educators accountable — setting up a showdown that lawmakers will have to solve.

The drama surrounding New York’s teacher evaluation system has many characters, including lawmakers, state education department officials, the governor, unions and other advocacy groups. Here’s where they all stand — and why the behind-the-scenes dynamics are so complicated.

Teachers unions could get what they want — but pushback is already forming.

The state and city teachers union are thrilled today. Union members gathering for a meeting in Buffalo this week applauded when the bill was introduced, according to NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn, who called it on Twitter a “Giant step towards protecting kids.” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta said it was “long overdue,” and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew chimed in with support, too.

NYSUT has been fighting for immediate changes to teacher evaluations all year and has long argued that teacher rating systems should not place too much emphasis on state test scores.

But there are already signs that their fight will be tough. Besides locking down support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Senate, the union is already facing pushback from education groups. Some advocates warn that a dramatic reversal would move the state backwards, depriving officials of an important way to distinguish whether educators are helping students learn.

Cuomo hasn’t said much — and that might say it all.

No one’s in a more interesting position than Cuomo. If he opposes the legislation, the state’s powerful teachers unions might throw their support to Cynthia Nixon, who’s challenging him for in the Democratic gubernatorial primary — something that he desperately wants to avoid. If he backs the bill he could come off looking like a flip-flopper who let himself get pushed into restoring a patchwork of teacher evaluation rules that he once called “baloney.”

Looming behind the entire saga is the question of what Cuomo, who is seen as a political mastermind, benefits from the ordeal — and if he doesn’t, will he have to swallow this pill for the union’s endorsement or will he let it fall apart in the end?

Republican Assemblyman Edward Ra asked as much on Twitter earlier on Friday. “For some reason no one is asking one obvious question: is the Governor on board on board or I’m gonna veto this in 6 months on board?” Ra tweeted.

So far, Cuomo hasn’t taken a stand. A spokesperson for the governor suggested that he is interested in tackling teacher evaluations this year but did not expressly support or oppose the bill. The governor must have at least some interest in the plan, however, since he’s been participating in discussions behind-the-scenes, according to a statement sent by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office.

But by not taking a stance immediately, he can avoid a public flip-flop for now and wait and see how the battle plays out among lawmakers.

The Republican-led Senate is a wild card.

While the Assembly is likely to pass its own bill, the Republican-controlled Senate is more of a mystery.

Republican control of the Senate is already precarious. Though Republican Senators are technically outnumbered by Democrats, a single Brooklyn Senator is keeping the GOP in power by conferencing with the opposite party. And the Republicans will be fighting for seats in Long Island, which is the white hot center of the state’s testing boycott movement.

It could be hard for Senators to explain to their constituents that they blocked a bill that reduces the state’s emphasis on testing and you can bet the state’s teachers union, which will be fighting hard for this to pass, will not let them forget it come election time.

State education officials have stayed quiet — and gotten the blame anyway.

We’ve heard little from the state education department, but officials there could well be frustrated. They laid out a timeline for improving the teacher evaluation system by 2019, which coincides with the end of the moratorium on the use of certain state test scores in teacher evaluations. Now this legislation may circumvent that plan.

Plus, Cuomo staffers are actively blaming state education officials for creating the current education crisis in the first place — when in fact the department has been charged with executing on a law that Cuomo spearheaded in 2015. (Cuomo officials say the state education department botched the roll-out of of the Common Core learning standards, leading to much of the dissatisfaction among parents and educators.)

State education department officials said they do not comment on pending legislation but that their process to revamp teacher evaluations has already begun.

Nixon made the first move — and potential supporters were not thrilled.

Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, offered the first indication that something was brewing in Albany on Thursday morning, when she announced that she would push for a repeal of the state’s evaluation rules.

It looked like an obvious choice as she seeks to win over the state’s teachers unions, but by the afternoon, the unions were criticizing her for jumping into a fight where she wasn’t invited.

“Ms. Nixon’s 11th hour public statement on the bill — while it may score political points — won’t help it get enacted,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

On Friday, however, Nixon tried to drum up support from union members at a state teachers union meeting. Though she had not been expressly invited, according to Ryan Whalen, a Capitol Tonight reporter, on Twitter, she took pictures with members and tweeted that they should be “treasured and lifted up” for the work they do.

This story has been updated to include information from state education department officials.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”