election season

Lawmakers vote in new Regent in unusually contested election

New Regent Josephine Finn, speaking to Speaker Sheldon Silver, who helped get her elected.

ALBANY — An unusually tense legislative process to pick members for the state’s Board of Regents ended with a contested vote on Tuesday that some lawmakers said was a referendum on school reforms taking shape across the state.

In a joint session of the State Senate and Assembly, the legislature elected three incumbent Regents to new terms: Christine Cea of Staten Island; and James Cottrell and Wade Norwood, who do not represent specific parts of the state. A fourth incumbent seeking re-election, James Jackson, took himself out of the running on Monday evening as it became increasingly clear that he had lost the support of legislators representing his Regents district.

Jackson’s vacancy was filled by Monticello village judge Josephine Finn, a former community college professor, who beat out two other candidates by a margin of 121-20-10. Finn emerged as a new candidate to replace Finn on Monday during a last-minute interviewed convened by lawmakers.

All of the winners won handily over their challengers, but their margins were smaller than in previous elections. This year, the winners faced opposition from dozens of Democrats and Republicans who either supported challengers or abstained from voting altogether to protest the election process. Individual legislators’ votes were not immediately available.

The dissent reflected legislators’ efforts to respond to broad unpopularity among parents and teachers over the state’s implementation of Common Core learning standards and new teacher evaluations, both of which are approved and overseen by the Regents. After the vote, opposing legislators blamed the Regents for the rocky implementation and called for changes to who gets to make decisions about education policy.

“I think they all should have been tossed, fired, based upon the failed implementation of Common Core,” said Republican Senate co-leader Dean Skelos, who abstained. “We all want higher standards, but those four incumbents, they cause chaos within the whole education system.”

Skelos also used the opportunity to connect Democrats in the Assembly, who control the Regents voting process, to the controversial education policies overseen by Regents.

“All I know is that the Democrats today continue to vote for the status quo and are not listening to parents, are not listening to educators,” Skelos added.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver defended the process, saying that the votes from both houses of the legislature were needed to approve of the four Regents members.

“I think you saw it play out today,” Silver said. “The Assembly could not elect Regents on their own. Senators voted with members with the Assembly to provide the majority.”

Asked about Jackson’s resignation and Finn’s ascendance, Silver said it was a change driven by local Albany lawmakers.

“The regional representatives of that judicial district met [and] made a determination to do that,” Silver said.

One of those lawmakers, Patricia Fahy, praised Jackson on the floor of the Assembly. “We are very grateful for his work there and for his work on the Regents,” she said.

Cottrell, the reelected Regent, said Jackson’s departure was “a big loss to the board. He was such a wonderful contributor on education. He knew every issue. he’s been in the system for so long.”

Jackson was a teacher and principal for more than 40 years at Shaker High School.

Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who watched the voting process live and sat with the winning Regents, declined to comment on the process carried out by the legislature. But she defended the role of the Regents, saying they played a critical role in the way policy is set.

“I would say to anyone who thinks that this board rubber-stamps staff work at the education department, come to a board meeting and listen carefully,” Tisch said.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.