on the scene

Live-blogging the reconstituted Board of Education meeting

I’m conveying live reports from Philissa and Anna, who are at Tweed Courthouse, where the reconstituted Board of Education is having its first meeting in seven years. UPDATE: As of 1:30 p.m. the show moved to City Hall, and we’re still updating from there.

2:15 p.m. Meeting adjourned.

2:11 p.m. Bloomberg: “This is so obviously right, that’s why there’s unanimity.” He also just declared that New York City offers a model for how government should work.

2:05 p.m. Ruben Diaz Jr., Bronx borough president, said he might want to convene the Board of Education before September 10. The Board earlier voted not to meet again until that date. “I’ve never had a problem with telling the chancellor what’s on my mind,” Diaz said.

That prompted Queens president Marshall to step in and announce she’s already convened a parent advisory panel. She said she dislikes Bloomberg’s third-grade retention policy. The last time school board members opposed that policy, Bloomberg voted them off the board as it was known under mayoral control, the Panel for Educational Policy.

2:03 p.m. “If we disagree with the mayor, there isn’t a borough president here who wouldn’t stand up and do something,” Scott Stringer, the borough president of Manhattan, said. Stringer’s appointee, Jimmy Yan, is a former attorney for Advocates for Children, the nonprofit that supports students with disabilities. He now serves as Stringer’s legal counsel.

2:01 p.m. Asked what he’ll do about community school boards, which are also supposed to resurrect under the pre-2002 law, Bloomberg punted. “How can we convene them?” he said. He said officials have not considered what to do about school boards yet.

1:59 p.m. “We’re trying to continue on as though mayoral control were approved,” Bloomberg said.

1:52 p.m. Bloomberg earlier thanked Helen Marshall of Queens for appointing Walcott. She smiled and laughed. Now the mayor is warning of a significant risk that the Senate will drag its feet, since the law has expired. He also declared that no chancellor ever lasted more than a year and a half under the old governance structure. That’s not true. Harold Levy, the previous chancellor, served two years; his predecessor, Rudy Crew, served for four.

1:47 p.m. Mayor Bloomberg is now flexing his foreign-language muscles, summarizing the situation en Espanol. Of his riot threats, he said, “It’s a euphemism.” Huh?

1:46 p.m. Randi Weingarten: “So I guess I should have resigned effective June 30.”

Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. offered the lone voice of (some) dissent at today's City Hall press conference.
Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. offered the lone voice of (some) dissent at today’s City Hall press conference.

1:42 p.m. Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz fumbled, referring to the Department of Education. He then paused and said “Board of Education.” Even the DOE legally was called the Board of Education.

Bronx borough president, speaking at City Hall, was the only person to foreshadow possible disagreements inside the new Board of Education. “It doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree,” he said.

Parent activist Jane Hirschmann of Time Out From Testing temporarily stole the mayor's podium, demanding more voice for parents.

1:40 p.m. Before the mayor spoke, parent activist Jane Hirschmann stole the podium. “We want the voice of the parents to be heard,” she said. She has since been escorted from the room by City Hall staff.

1:35 p.m. Mayor Bloomberg, at a press conference at City Hall, said of the revived Board of Education, “These are Band-aids, not solutions.” He said, “The temporary school board has attempted to sidestep the worst consequences” of mayoral control’s expiration.

1:14 p.m. All board members have waived their salaries, says Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz. The law outlines $15,000 a year for board members and $20,000 for the board president.

1:08 p.m. Why Walcott? “He’s from Queens, he knows a lot about education,” Queens borough president Helen Marshall, who appointed Walcott, told Anna. “He’s still obligated to me, and if he crosses that line…” The borough president gave Anna a meaningful look.

PHOTO: Maura Walz
Meet the new Board of Education president, Dennis Walcott. (Center)

1:06 p.m. The entire meeting lasted nine minutes, by Philissa’s count.

1:01 p.m. The Board of Education voted to endorse the Assembly’s mayoral control bill, passing a motion, 6 to 0, to support the Assembly’s version of the revised law. (Fernandez abstained.) Then it voted to adjourn until September 10.

12:58 p.m. Chancellor Joel Klein will remain in office, following a 7 to 0 vote of all Board members. Fernandez voting in favor this time.

12:57 p.m. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott was just voted president of the new Board of Education, and Department of Education counsel Michael Best was voted secretary. The Bronx appointee, Dolores Fernandez, abstained from voting both times.

12:52 p.m. Carlo Scissura, the Brooklyn borough president’s Board of Education appointee, served on a community school board in 1999. Then he “led the district in making the transition to mayoral control” as president of District 20’s Community Education Council in 2004, a press release stated.

12:48 p.m. Meanwhile, James Merriman, executive director of the city’s charter school advocacy center, is in the room.

12:47 p.m. A Community Education Council president, for District 1 in Manhattan, is among those unable to get inside the meeting. Lisa Donlan’s CEC passed a resolution this morning asking that it transform into a community school board. The CEC also requested that its superintendent be appointed the community district superintendent under the pre-2002 rules.

A crowd of people who aren't being let into the Board of Education meeting. Philissa reports that police shut the door as soon as she snapped this photo.
A crowd of people who aren’t being let in to the Board of Education meeting. Police shut the door to the meeting right after Philissa snapped this photo, she reports.

12:44 p.m. A crowd of parents and others are waiting outside the room, unable to get in. See the photo on the right. Police shut the door to the meeting just after Philissa snapped that picture, she reports.

12:36 p.m. The meeting is in the same Tweed Courthouse room as Panel for Educational Policy meetings were held. But this time the audience gets fancy plush chairs with wheels. Used to be folding chairs. Philissa says Department of Education staffers are dressed extra-nice.

12:30 p.m. Weingarten to reporters: “The ironic part here is there were a lot of checks and balances in the Assembly bill that would have gone into effect starting today.” The checks would have specifically given superintendents more power in their districts, she said.

12:19 p.m. I just got a call from two parent activists who aren’t being let in and wanted to see if I could help. I can’t.

Randi Weingarten, city teachers union president, arrived at the Board of Education meeting and was immediately thronged by reporters.

12:16 p.m. Famously tardy Randi Weingarten, who’s still president of the United Federation of Teachers for one more month, just walked in smiling. But no more people will be let in; staff say the room is full.

12:14 p.m. The meeting will start late. The Bronx borough president’s appointee, Delores Fernandez, is stuck in traffic. She’s the only appointee who’s indicated, via borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., that she’ll criticize mayoral control and Chancellor Joel Klein.

12:07 p.m. There will be no public comment at the board meeting. Haimson, with a laugh: “This is the real Soviet Union!”

12:02 p.m. Reporters and new Board of Education members have settled in their seats. Leonie Haimson just placed the book she and other mayoral control critics produced at every member’s seat. No one stopped her.

12:00 p.m. The room at Tweed is so packed that Department of Education employees have been asked to listen on loudspeakers outside.

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.”