race to the race to the top

Even as a finalist, NY still a Race to the Top longshot, officials say

New York’s education officials and politicians reacted with shock to news today that their dark-horse state was named a finalist in the competition for Race to the Top funds.

But the unexpected good news did little to instill confidence among lawmakers, who cautioned that the state is still a long-shot for a win.

Many officials and advocates said the state legislature’s failure to act on several key elements of the application — namely, its cap on charter schools and teacher tenure laws — could hobble the state’s chances at the badly-needed funds. And they urged Albany to enact those changes immediately, before the state makes its final pitch to the grant program’s judges in two weeks. The winners of the competition will be announced in April.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she was “thrilled” that the state’s application, which centered on proposals to build a new data tracking system and to overhaul how teachers are trained and certified, was judged strong enough to make the finals. But she added a note of caution.

“Now we need to make sure that the possibility doesn’t slip away,” Tisch said.

The city Department of Education, the teachers union and a variety of advocates praised the Regents and State Education Commissioner David Steiner for their work in crafting the application. Throughout the fall and winter, the Board of Regents voted to link teacher certification to student performance, greatly expand a statewide student data tracking system and outlined a policy to replace the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools.

But changes the Regents asked the legislature to make, including the charter cap lift, were stymied.

With Governor David Paterson embroiled in ethics scandals and members of his administration leaving, Albany’s political paralysis has intensified. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg nevertheless called on the legislature to act swiftly.

“[W]e’ve got to work very hard with the legislature and say, you know, we’ve got some life here, but we’re on life support,” Bloomberg told reporters today.

Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have lobbied hard for the elimination of the charter cap and provisions that would allow the city to use test scores not only to grant tenure, but also to fire teachers and change the order in which teachers are laid off in budget crises. Both have argued that these changes are necessary to maximize the state’s Race to the Top changes.

“[W]e haven’t won a dime yet,” Klein said in a statement. “And we’re realistic about what the State needs to do to win this race.”

Promoting the growth of charter schools and using data to evaluate teachers are two Obama administration priorities, and and taken together they would have counted for nearly a fifth of the points on the state’s application. Nearly 50 anonymous judges reviewed states’ applications, scoring each one using a rubric with a 500 point scale. The 16 finalists announced today all received scores of above 400, federal officials said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said today that applications were evaluated on a wide variety of factors and no single element had killed a state’s chances.

“Every state had relative strengths and every state had relative weaknesses,” Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. “Charters were never going to be the determining factor. We’ve said that from day one.”

The contest did have one significant eligibility requirement: states could not have any legal barriers to using student test scores to evaluate teachers or principals. New York’s tenure law, set to expire this summer, led observers early on to question whether the state would even be eligible. Even after it became clear that New York would be able to submit an application, many suspected the provision would hurt the state’s chances.

The charter cap issue has created even more headaches. Days before the Race to the Top application deadline in January, Governor David Paterson and the state legislature became tangled in a debate over whether and how to raise the state’s charter cap and in the end failed to take any action at all.

The state teachers union, which resisted a wholesale lift of the charter cap, argued that the state’s advance to finalist confirmed their argument that New York was competitive without significant changes to state law.

“We believed from the very start of this process that New York possessed the basic building blocks to put forward a very competitive application,” union head Richard Ianuzzi said in a statement.

New York Charter School Association policy director Peter Murphy said the state was now in a kind of “Catch-22” situation — New York could risk receiving partial funding for some reforms but miss the opportunity for a full grant because of the application’s weaknesses.

“It really behooves the state sooner rather than later to show we’re serious,” Murphy said. “I think the worst outcome would be to get a pittance of a grant when the full opportunity was lost.”

New York’s Race to the Top application asks for $831 million over four years to fund 30 projects. That’s $130 million more than the USDOE has indicated large states like New York are likely to receive, though federal officials indicated that their estimates are non-binding. In January, Paterson included $750 million in Race to the Top funds in his proposed state budget in anticipation of a win, a move that Duncan called “a leap of faith.”

USDOE spokesman Justin Hamilton said that the department would hold budget meetings with winners to determine how much money will actually be given to each state to put its plan into action. The winners of the first round of competition will not be eligible to apply for new funds in round two, Hamilton said.

When the winners are announced, federal officials plan to release all states’ scores and judges’ comments about each application’s strengths and weaknesses. However, finalists will not see their scores before their presentations, Hamilton said, meaning state officials will not know precisely what areas have weakened their application as they prepare their final pitches.

State education officials have not yet determined which representatives from New York will travel to Washington to make the final pitch to judges, state education department spokesman Tom Dunn said.

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.”