space debate

New York City greenlights Success Academy middle school after contentious space fight

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Success Academy has repeatedly fought the city for space. CEO Eva Moskowitz and parents protested at a Harlem school earlier this year.

Less than a year after Success Academy lost a battle to open a new middle school in a building shared by a small Brooklyn elementary school, city officials confirmed Wednesday that they plan to give the charter network the green light to open in that space starting next school year.

Success Academy Lafayette, a middle school that was forced to open in a different building this school year, will now likely move into the P.S. 25 building in Bedford-Stuyvesant — a year later than the charter network had hoped.

The decision is a belated victory for Success Academy, though it must still go through a public hearing process and a vote from the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

But the broader story about Success Academy’s fight for space in the P.S. 25 building is far more complicated and is related to a separate and fraught court battle over whether a district elementary school as small as P.S. 25 should be allowed to remain open. To understand this latest move, it helps to know the complicated backstory behind this single Brooklyn school building.

Why did the city delay Success Academy opening a middle school in the first place?

It’s not uncommon for the city to butt heads with Success Academy over school space, so on some level it’s not surprising that there was a dustup. But in this case, Success had already been operating an elementary school in the building and had decided to move those students elsewhere and replace it with a middle school.

Normally charter schools must go through a public hearing process when they make a significant change like this to the way they use a school building, especially in cases where they share facilities with a district school.

Success assumed there would be no need to go through that process, since it looked as though the school operating in the building, P.S. 25, also known as the Eubie Blake School, would be closed. Then came a lawsuit challenging the city’s decision to close the school — and a judge’s ruling that P.S. 25 should stay open while the case continues to wind its way through court.

That created a problem for the charter network: By the time it became clear the district school would remain open, it was too late for Success to go through the formal public approval process. The network’s CEO Eva Moskowitz and parents called on the city to approve the middle school anyway on an emergency basis, but the education department declined to act. The result: Success wasn’t allowed to open a middle school in the building this school year. Instead, it opened in a building less than a mile away. (The network did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.)

If P.S. 25 closes, another charter school could open in the building

It’s unclear whether the city will be allowed to follow through on its plan to shutter P.S. 25. But if the closure goes through, the education department will likely reserve the space for another charter school, officials said Wednesday.

“We are working with District 16 and Success to meet the needs of our students and families,” education department spokesman Doug Cohen wrote in an email.

NeQuan McLean, president of the District 16 Community Education Council, said that while he does not generally support the growth of charter schools in the district, it is better to allow charter schools to share space with each other instead of with district schools.

“We have agreed as a community and a CEC to make that a charter building,” he said.

What’s up with the court battle over P.S. 25?

The lawsuit to keep P.S. 25 open banks on a complicated argument about how much power local community education councils have in school closure decisions.

Under state law, the councils have the authority to approve any changes to school zones and typically don’t have any power to block school closure decisions. But since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating the neighborhood’s children, forcing students to attend other schools in other districts or to enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

It’s possible that argument will gain traction. A similar lawsuit filed in 2009, and joined by the city’s teachers union, prompted the city to reverse plans to replace three elementary schools with charter schools. (A favorable legal outcome for the P.S. 25 parents could affect the procedure for closing schools in the future, but only if they are also zoned.)

The school’s supporters also argue that the school’s performance makes it an odd choice for closure: its state test scores last year put it among the highest-ranked elementary schools in the city. That stellar performance, however, could partly be the result of natural statistical swings in scores that can occur in schools that serve so few students. (The school’s math scores have shot up from 22 percent of students passing in 2015 to over 70 percent last school year.)

“All those kids will literally be forced to leave an excellent school that has managed to provide small classes and proven itself many times in terms of results,” Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters and a supporter of the lawsuit, wrote in an email.

Just 87 students are currently enrolled in the school, which is projected to spend nearly $50,000 per student this year, roughly double the city average. (That number could fluctuate this year, since more students appeared to have enrolled than the city expected, but final numbers won’t be available until later this fall.)

Still, no matter what happens in court, it is unlikely P.S. 25 will remain open. Even if the lawsuit forces the education department to abide by a vote from the local education council, its members want the school to close, its president said.

“If the question is would we be willing to change the zone lines so that the DOE would be able to close the school? The answer is absolutely,” said McLean, the community education council president.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that spending per student at P.S. 25 is based on a city projection. 

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.