big debut

Weiner steps out, and against competitors, at education debate

In his first debate as a mayoral candidate, former congressman Anthony Weiner distinguished himself from his Democratic rivals and made it clear he was not going to tell the event’s organizers what they wanted to hear.

The debate Tuesday afternoon was organized by New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, a group that formed to oppose the Bloomberg administration’s school policies, and questions were tilted heavily toward the group’s agenda. Weiner and all the other Democratic candidates, except City Council Speaker Christine Quinn who dropped out over the weekend, answered questions from moderator Zakiyah Ansari, a parent activist and spokeswoman for NY-GPS.

Most of the candidates spent the debate reiterating positions they’ve taken in the past that fall close to what the group says it wants from the next mayor. They promised to refrain from closing schools and curbing school space-sharing arrangements, for example.

But Weiner stood apart from his competitors, both by rising each time he answered a question and by staking out unpopular positions. He was the only candidate to say he would not shift control of school discipline from the New York Police Department to principals and would not earmark special funding for arts education in schools.

He stood firm even where his stances have already drawn fire from groups aligned with NY-GPS. The first question of the debate was from student Cheyenne Smith, who asked Weiner about his priority to make it easier for schools to remove “troublesome students” from classrooms, a policy that critics have said could increase suspensions.

Smith asked, “Why would you focus on making it easier to suspend students instead of using proven effective ways to improve school safety and keep students in school?”

“The last thing you need is a disruptive child making it difficult for someone else to learn,” Weiner said. “We have to realize there’s a constituency among the kids that are in that classroom that want to learn and we have to make sure we at least focus on that group, like a laser beam, so that they can have their rights as well.”

Weiner also stood out from his competitors when it came to co-locations, a hot-button issue for advocacy groups who argue that charter schools moving into district schools has a negative effect on the district schools. Weiner said he would allow communities to decide how they want extra space in school buildings to be used.

Communities might choose to expand a school library, create a gifted and talented program, or open a charter school, he said, adding, “I want the competition to be fair and let the best ideas win.”

At one point, Weiner did seem to get caught up in the anti-Bloomberg sentiment that swirled during the debate. Asked to say whether charter school operator Eva Moskowitz has gotten special treatment from the Bloomberg administration, the other candidates quickly said yes. But Weiner was confused.  “I have no bloody idea,” he said, to laughter. “Uh, sure. … It seems to be the answer of the day.”

Weiner fell in with the pack on several issues. All of the candidates said they would go to Albany to lobby Gov. Andrew Cuomo to give the city money it is supposed to have gotten because of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, which found that the city receives inadequate state funding. And he and Comptroller John Liu both said they were open to the idea of recreating the Chancellor’s District, which former Board of Education President Bill Thompson, who is also a mayoral candidate, has said was crucial to improving low-performing schools instead of closing them.

“Instead of giving up on those schools, we need to turn those schools around. A chancellor’s district would allow us to do that,” Thompson said. “It would allow us to be able to focus on increasing services to those schools, capping those schools, intensive curriculum, focus on teacher development.”

Even though questions were heavily tilted toward GPS’s agenda, several questions did push candidates to explain — albeit in 30-second intervals — their constructive vision for the city’s public schools. “Everyone has criticized standardized testing but hasn’t provided an alternative,” a student from Bronx International High School asked. “What’s yours?” Later, Ansari asked, “How would you reform special education?”

Liu said that under Bloomberg, a quarter of students who need special education services do not get those services. His solution involves integrating more special needs students into “so-called mainstream classrooms,” something that the Department of Education has done in recent years.

“It’s a balance of mainstreaming the kids and it’s a balance of maintaining the special needs classrooms,” Liu said.

After the debate, Ansari said she wanted to hear more from Weiner on his education policies, especially when it comes to how to improve low-performing high schools, for which none of the candidates have provided clear solutions.

“Some issues he was a little vague on,” she said. “If you’re going to do this… then you’ve got to get on it and play catch up, so to speak.”

After the debate, Monique Lindsay, who serves on the UFT parent outreach committee and is a member of the Coalition for Educational Justice, said about Weiner, “I think that everything he said is what we want to hear,” but added, “I think that his downfall is going to be that incident, the things he did two years ago.”

Below is the full audio from the event:
 

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.”