The city’s controversial plan to place a charter school in a South Bronx building was narrowly approved Wednesday night, but not before drawing rare “nay” votes from two of the mayor’s own appointees to the city’s education policy board.
In an unusually divided 7-5 vote, the Panel for Educational Policy voted to move three grades of an expanding Success Academy elementary school into a building with three existing middle schools next year. The district schools are all a part of the city’s School Renewal turnaround program, and will have to give up space just as they begin to craft improvement plans — a scenario that appeared to test the patience of some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allies.
“I cannot in good conscience vote for a co-location of a charter school with three Renewal schools,” panelist Norm Fruchter said at the end of the meeting. “So I vote no.”
Elzora Cleveland, another mayoral appointee, also voted no.
The dissent is the latest illustration of how the panel’s dynamics have changed since the Bloomberg administration, when mayoral appointees voted in favor of the city’s proposals or were replaced before they could vote against them. (The mayor appoints eight of 13 members.)
The co-location debate also encapsulates a number of complicated problems the education department is facing: The need to support the schools in the Renewal program and its need to follow through on promises of space in public buildings to Success Academy; its desire for schools in shared buildings to work together and the three Bronx schools’ vehement protest of Success Academy’s arrival; and its need for space-sharing proposals to earn panel members’ approval while giving members the independence de Blasio has promised them.
Concerns about struggling schools facing co-locations aren’t new. At February’s panel meeting, in which three of eight co-location plans affected Renewal schools, Fruchter said he worried the space plans could undermine the city’s goal to provide the schools with extra resources like health clinics or additional counseling services. Chancellor Carmen Fariña said then that those worries were unwarranted, a message she repeated on Wednesday.
This time, Fruchter, a longtime education activist and policy analyst for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, took his concerns a step further, breaking ranks for the first time since joining the panel 15 months ago.
“I try as best I can to support the chancellor because I think she’s doing a Herculean job in very difficult circumstance and she has terrific educational instincts,” Fruchter said.
Fruchter’s vote raised eyebrows among some of his colleagues, with one saying it would force some soul-searching as the city proposes more co-locations.
“For me, it was personally newsworthy and it made me think twice,” mayoral appointee Isaac Carmignani said. “It didn’t change my vote, but I respect Norm a lot. Norm has tons of experience, so that meant a lot.”
Four other co-locations were also approved at the meeting, including a contentious plan to co-locate a New Visions charter school with August Martin High School, also a Renewal school. Fruchter voted for that that proposal, which passed 7-3. Two members, including new mayoral appointee Ben Shuldiner, recused themselves.
The votes came after hours of charged testimony from parents, teachers, and students from several schools affected by the five co-locations being debated. More than 200 Success Academy Bronx 3 supporters, many donning orange shirts, packed into the middle seats of the auditorium of Pace High School in Chinatown, while a smaller group from J.H.S. 145, one of the other schools, huddled in the back.
Angel Cornejo, the mother of a Success Academy second grader, said she wanted the plan to be approved because she was concerned her son would otherwise have to return to a district school.
“He had a hard time the first couple of months. He was reading below level and struggling with math,” Cornejo said. “I was so confused because I was told by his teachers a local district school that he attended in kindergarten that he was right where he needed to be.”
Success Academy, which now operates 32 charter schools across the city, is the city’s top-performing charter network. But its strict discipline practices and intense academic focus, much of which is geared toward the state’s annual tests, as well as its high-profile lobbying efforts, have also attracted fierce criticism.
And while political tensions may have eased between Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz and de Blasio since they faced off over school space last year, Wednesday night’s close vote shows that the network is still deeply divisive. Even panel members who voted for the proposal criticized what they called overly dramatic testimony from parents.
“Tonight’s comments confirmed to me that stakeholders at Success Academy are only concerned about themselves,” said panel member Vanessa Leung, a mayoral appointee.
Adding to the administration’s school-space headache is that Fariña and de Blasio are working to convince the state legislature that they should hold onto their control of the school system. The city’s mayoral control law expires at the end of June, and lawmakers have expressed concerns that the panel is too strongly connected to the mayor.
“We’re concerned about who gets appointed, how it gets appointed, how decisions get made,” said Walter Mosley, Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat and member of the Assembly education committee. “Right now, it feels as though nothing has changed.”
The building that the Success Academy school will enter next year has the capacity to serve more than 1,700 students, but is only currently serving about 920, according to the city’s (often disputed) estimates. As many as 120 third-grade students from Success will join them next year.
Success Academy will take over 14 full-size rooms next year, while the largest middle school in the building, J.H.S. 145, will give up nine of its 27 full-size rooms. Urban Science Academy will lose two of 20 rooms, and New Millennium Academy, the smallest school, will lose three of 15 rooms.
In response to concerns that the co-location would harm the city’s plans for its Renewal program, Fariña said her vision for the schools did not necessarily mean that they would require more space.
But Fariña’s comments did little to assuage some concerns.
Jim Donohue, who has taught English at J.H.S. 145 for the last 16 years, said taking away space sent mixed messages about his school’s future.
“What I find ironic and frustrating is that just as they’re saying, ‘You’re a Renewal school, you’re a school in need, here are resources,’” Donohue said. “On the other hand they’re saying, ‘Here’s an eviction notice.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said two members abstained from a vote on a co-location involving New Visions charter school, rather than recused themselves.