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Extra pay for principals who heard Walcott speech is questioned

City principals who heard Chancellor Dennis Walcott deliver a stemwinding political speech on Saturday will get an extra day of summer vacation to make up for it.

This year, for the first time, the Department of Education told principals that they could take a day off during the summer to compensate for attending the citywide principals conference, held Saturday at Brooklyn Technical High School.

“To encourage attendance, any principal who attends the conference will receive one compensation day that can be used between June 27 and August 30,” the department’s weekly bulletin to principals said for at least the last two weeks.

The tradeoff isn’t sitting right with some, including UFT President Michael Mulgrew, whose union frequently battles the department to ensure that teachers are paid for time they spend working outside of the regular school day. Mulgrew cited the prohibition on city workers participating in political activity on the job.

“You’re using taxpayer dollars to pay New York City workers to come in and listen to you do a political rant,” Mulgrew said. “It’s at least inappropriate, but it really borders on questionable ethics.”

The Department of Education’s top spokesman, Andrew Kirtzman, rejected Mulgrew’s criticism.

“Mr. Mulgrew needs a truth commission of his own,” Kirtzman said, referring to Mulgrew’s call last week for a commission to investigate the Bloomberg administration’s education achievement claims. “Contrary to his assertion, the purpose of the speech was to urge that politics — and specifically the competition for his endorsement — not interfere with the progress of the city’s schools.”

The principals conference, which 1,200 principals and department officials attended, was the third that the city has held. Erin Hughes, a department spokeswoman, said attendance was about the same as last year, when principals were not compensated for attending and officials’ message focused on the nitty-gritty details of implementing new standards and teacher evaluations. The year before that, department officials brought in David Coleman, architect of the Common Core, to pump principals up about the new standards.

This year, department officials took a turn toward the political. Walcott’s speech took direct aim at mayoral candidates who have been calling for changes to the Bloomberg administration’s school policies — a call that the New York Times supported in an editorial today.

“To dismantle the reforms of the last decade would be a disaster for our children and this city,” Walcott said, before citing what he said had been improvements in the school system and student achievement. “We cannot turn back the clock on our students.”

The chancellor received only a tepid response from the audience, which spilled into the balcony of Brooklyn Tech’s cavernous auditorium. He drew a smattering of applause when pointing to powers that principals have now that they did not have before Bloomberg took office, such as the right to select teachers who want to work in their schools. But the audience sat quietly through much of the speech, and some members even laughed when he proclaimed that he proclaimed that he doesn’t “involve myself in politics.”

The largest applause of the morning came when Walcott promised to deliver school budgets on Friday, which he said would be the earliest time in recent memory that principals would know how much they can spend next year.

Walcott’s speech made up only a small portion of the day. Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky immediately followed the chancellor to remind principals that even as the city becomes wrapped up in politics, hard work remains to be done in schools every day. Students spoke about overcoming setbacks; Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston described his path from high school principal to politician influencing teacher evaluation, tenure, and training across his state; and every attendee took home a copy of Paul Tough’s 2012 book “How Children Succeed,” which looks at the “soft skills” that students must develop if they are to thrive in college and careers.

After the speeches, principals scattered among dozens of workshops that they had signed up in advance to attend. Workshops focused on teacher effectiveness, strategies for working with English language learners, and curriculum, among other topics.

The workshops were appropriate to compensate principals for participating in over the weekend, Mulgrew said. But he said the principals conference had fallen short of its purported goal.

“The chancellor is supposed to be discussing the educational strategies for next year,” Mulgrew said. “I guess he doesn’t have one.”

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