Round 2

A tour reignites a feud, and sheds light on Harlem space wars

     Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer reflects on his tour of P.S. 123 today.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer reflects on his tour of P.S. 123 today.

Scott Stringer and Eva Moskowitz are fighting again, not over an elected office this time, but over school space.

Stringer, who defeated Moskowitz in a fierce borough presidency race in 2005, reignited the flames by taking a tour of a Harlem elementary school today. The school, P.S. 123, shares space with Harlem Success Academy 2, one of Moskowitz’s four charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are privately operated.

Stringer’s visit, guided by P.S. 123 parents, teachers, and members of the activist group ACORN, was the latest attempt by supporters of the school to try to stop Harlem Success from expanding into its classrooms as the charter school adds a first grade. (An earlier scuffle between the two schools ended with police intervention.)

The building tour provided a rare on-the-ground view of the space wars that have accelerated as more and more school buildings house multiple schools.

Piles of furniture and boxes of supplies cluttered a third floor hallway, the detritus of Harlem Success’ move last week, P.S. 123 parents and teachers explained. School supporters also pointed to spaces they fear they will lose to the charter school, including a gym that Harlem Success has proposed splitting in half by partition so that both schools could use it at once. They said they also worry their library will be converted into a classroom.

John White, the city Department of Education’s chief portfolio officer, later told me that neither possibility is set in stone. The library will remain as it is, and will be shared by both schools, under a formal space-sharing agreement school leaders will craft, White said. And while it’s true that Harlem Success proposed splitting the gym, nothing will be settled until the principals meet and agree on a final plan, White said.

The tour made its way down to the basement, where everyone filed into a room that is used for after-school activities and GED classes and felt stuffy. The DOE has designated the room as classroom space for P.S. 123 next year, but teachers said there is little ventilation and the room easily overheats, making it unusable.

In our interview, White suggested that the school move its administrative offices there, noting that while the DOE apportions each principal a set number of classrooms, it does not tell them how to use the space.

According to White, each school was assigned a number of classrooms based on the size of its student body. In the next year, the DOE predicts that the schools will have a combined population of 950 students, with roughly 650 at P.S. 123 and 300 at the Academy. The building’s capacity is 1,034.

“This building used to have a thousand kids, and now they’re saying that there’s no space,” White said, “When parent demand changes, space usage has to change.”

But the two schools have been squabbling over how to divvy up the space for months since they first sat down to write a formal space-sharing agreement in May. Most recently, police were called to break up an argument when, without warning, Harlem Success movers began hauling boxes into additional classrooms and P.S. 123 teachers tried to stop them. Moskowitz said in a statement that the DOE had turned over the rooms to her on July 1, but the DOE says she had not been given the go-ahead to actually move into them.

The fight also led to a protest outside one of the charter school’s classrooms in which opponents changed “HSA go away,” Harlem Success officials said in a statement today.

At the end of the tour, Stringer called on the DOE to suspend HSA’s expansion until both principals had met and resolved the space issues — what he described as a “cooling out” period. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who is also the president of the new Board of Education, denied the request in a letter today.

“The implementation of this plan has been delayed due to the adjustment process, for some time, already jeopardizing the ability of schools to re-open in August,” Walcott wrote.

Moskowitz used the tour and Stringer’s comments as an opportunity to fire back. She issued a press release calling the borough president and ACORN organizers “union hacks.” Both Stringer and ACORN are close allies of the city teachers union, whose strenuous campaigning helped Stringer defeat Moskowitz in 2005.

The press release also accused teachers at P.S. 123 of being concerned only about their teachers lounge, which will likely be converted into a classroom. Among the many concerns they listed on the tour, teachers never mentioned a lounge.

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.”