No Strings Attached?

UFT hands pols money; a mayoral endorsement could be next

With less than a month to go before the Democratic primary, the teachers union is establishing itself as a major campaign donor in the upcoming city races.

As of August 10, candidates in the November election have received some $79,000 from the United Federation of Teachers’ committee on public education, according to the latest reports to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

The UFT doled out slightly less than some of the city’s other powerful unions, such as the Service Employees International Union, which has given more than $90,000 and the International Union of Operating Engineers, which has contributed over $80,000. But it’s substantially more than unions like D.C. 37 and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, both of which have members working in the city’s schools.

A union official said more money is yet to come. But the union’s biggest power will likely be its endorsements — the most important of which have yet to go out.

The official said it’s still possible that the UFT will endorse a candidate for mayor.

“There’s a distinct possibility that we will [make more endorsements]. We’ve got no time frame right now. We’re still assessing everything,” the official said.

A UFT endorsement means not only money but manpower in helping get out the vote, a major boon in an election year where the biggest ticket contest is a lackluster mayor’s race.

“It’s the member outreach that really really matters,” said Peter Goodman, a longtime UFT member. “We can run to our computer and see who lives in the district. We can do phone calls. We make robocalls. We can do all kinds of outreach,” he said, adding that these efforts are especially important in districts with large populations of black and Latino voters, many of whom work in the city’s schools.

Although the races for comptroller and public advocate are among the most competitive in the city, the union has yet to endorse anyone in either race. It has also not chosen a favorite in the mayoral race. The UFT gave $4,950 to mayoral candidate Bill Thompson and $500 to his Democratic challenger Tony Avella before the city’s term limits were changed and Mayor Bloomberg became a candidate.

This summer, the union endorsed four Council candidates, siding against the incumbent in one of them — a rare occurrence for the UFT.

Candidates for City Council who request an endorsement from the UFT are first vetted by the union’s political action committees — it has one in each borough — and then recommended to the executive board, which votes to recommend the person to the union’s 1,000 member delegate assembly. The delegates vote on who gets an endorsement, but don’t decide whether that candidate will get $500 or $4,950.

Some candidates — especially in races where there are many candidate to vet — are endorsed over the summer without coming before the assembly.  In District 14 in the Bronx, where Councilwoman Maria Baez is threatened by several challengers, the union chose Fernando Cabrera.

“Certain positions that Baez has taken were problematic,” the union official said, citing union issues such as crossing picket lines and wages. “Cabrera is a former UFT member, he’s been a counselor in the schools, he’s been there. Baez’s record just did not stand up to scrutiny,” the official said.

The official said that, often, how much money a candidate receives is more indicative of how early he or she entered the race, rather than how close they are to the UFT.

In the race for public advocate, the UFT has given both Bill de Blasio and Eric Gioia similar amounts of money, even though they are rivals. The union has some the same thing to Melinda Katz and John Liu, competitors for city comptroller.

“Rather than anyone thinking that we had made a decision, that there’s a favorite son in there, we’re trying to keep them as level as we possibly can,” a union official said. “It’s kind of pitting friends against friends.”

In one unusual case, the UFT has chosen to endorse two rivals vying for a Queens City Council seat, Helen Sears, the incumbent, and Daniel Dromm, a public school teacher.

At this point in the race, comptroller hopeful Katz has received the largest UFT contribution, though by accident. According to the Campaign Finance Board, the UFT has given her roughly $5,000, which is just over the legal limit. A union official said the money was given in error and would be returned.

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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.”