food services

As budgets are cut, advocates push for continued free lunch

City Councilman Brad Lander speaks at a rally today to oppose school lunch cuts. (<em>Courtesy: Lander's office</em>)<br />

Last month, city officials announced a plan to save $3 million by reducing the number of students receiving free lunch next year. Today, elected officials and child advocates struck back from the steps of City Hall.

The group was arguing that the city’s plan to end the practice at some schools of providing free lunch to all students, not just those who fill out forms proving their need, could force some hungry students go unfed.

“For many low-income kids, universal free lunches are depended-upon meals,” Councilwoman Letitia James said in a statement. “We all know that children need nutrients and nourishment to best process information throughout the day. Cutting universal free lunches would, in effect, be impairing children’s ability to learn. This is not an acceptable proposal.”

The city has said it expects to save $24 million in total by changing its school lunch program. Other changes include reducing the number of hot options at all schools and cutting 276 food service employees.

Press Release: Council Members and Advocates Rally to Save Free & Healthy Lunches in City Schools

New York, NY – New York City Council Members, along with food and public education advocates, called today for the restoration of proposed cuts to NYC’s School Food program, so that low-income kids don’t go hungry, and all kids have healthy choices. In particular, council members and advocates called for the restoration of $3 million to prevent the elimination of nearly 100 schools from the Universal School Meals program, which insures that all kids in predominantly low-income schools receive free lunches, and has been shown to improve health, nutrition, and academic achievement.

The NYC Department of Education, which has a budget of over $18 billion, has proposed substantial cuts to the School Food program: eliminating the Universal School Meals program in nearly 100 schools, and reducing the number of hot lunch options available in all schools (from 2 to 1 in elementary schools, from 3 to 2 in middle and high schools).

Under the Universal School Meals program, participating schools are able to offer students free breakfast and lunch regardless of their income, residency, or citizenship status. Filling out the necessary forms to qualify for free or reduced lunch is a barrier to many families that could benefit from these programs. The Universal School Meals program gives schools and their children access to healthy, nutritious meals while reducing the paperwork and simplifying the logistics of operating school meals programs. Providing free school meals universally within a school system has been shown to increase the likelihood that the meals are eaten, therefore improving children’s eating habits and their overall attention and ability to learn. Schools that provide universal breakfast in the classroom report decreases in discipline and psychological problems, decreases in visits to school nurses and tardiness, increases in student attentiveness and attendance, and generally improved learning environments.

“A strong public school food program – with universal free meals in low-income schools, and healthy food choices for all kids — is essential to keeping kids healthy and making sure they can learn,” said Councilmember Brad Lander. “This is a small investment in our children’s future when considering the vast improvement in academic performance and overall well-being it promotes.”

“Balancing the budget on the bellies of hungry students is just plain cruel,” stated Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee. “America is still one of the world’s wealthiest nations.  During these widespread hard times, the least we can do is feed our children. Hungry children can’t learn — what is DOE thinking?”

“Schools often serve as the primary or only source of balanced meals for our city’s youth,” said Councilmember Gale A. Brewer. “Unfortunately, many low-income students each day decide to forego school meals in order to avoid being identified as a reduced cost or free lunch student. The Universal School Meals system ensures students are not stigmatized and increases their likelihood to participate in school meals. In order to save $20-50 million in city tax levy funds, the city risks losing significant portions of the $350 million it receives in federal reimbursement dollars and depriving thousands of low income students of a nutritious meal.”

“The Universal Free Lunch Program eliminates the paperwork and stigmatic barriers to access for children who cannot normally afford to eat at school. There is nothing more important than our children’s education — shame on us if we fail to make it a top priority,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

“For many low-income kids, universal free lunches are depended-upon meals,” stated Council Member Letitia James. “We all know that children need nutrients and nourishment to best process information throughout the day. Cutting universal free lunches would, in effect, be impairing children’s ability to learn. This is not an acceptable proposal.”

Said Joel Berg, Executive Director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, “At a time when we all know it is in our self interest to fight child hunger, reduce obesity, and improve test scores, it is absurdly counterproductive to cut funding for a program that accomplishes all three of those things.”

“The movement to improve school food has been one of the most vibrant movements in many years.  Parents care about what their kids eat — they want healthy, appealing food for all our kids — and they are willing to organize for that,” said Nancy Romer, the General Coordinator for the Brooklyn Food Coalition. “As the most effective program to keep kids healthy and avoid obesity and its effects, school food should expand to provide more fresh fruits and veggies, not contract. School food is our collective offering to youngsters: it tells them what we believe about food. These cuts tell our kids that we don’t care about their health, that we won’t protect them from budget cuts. We shouldn’t jeopardize our kids’ health when taxing higher incomes at higher rates, among many other possible revenue raising initiatives, that could easily balance the budget and not take healthy food out of our kids’ mouths.”

“For our children to be able to concentrate, learn, and be productive in school, they need a hot meal so they are not hungry during the school day,” said Daysi Cuevas, a parent leader at Make the Road New York. “The Universal School Meal is an important program that helps thousands of needy families and we ask the Mayor not to cut this program.”

“The American Heart Association believes all New York City school children should have access to healthy and nutritious school meals,” stated Stephanie Chan, a survivor of heart disease and volunteer spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “Our schools should model appropriate healthy behaviors by promoting the availability of a nutritious meal during the school day. The Universal School Meals Program here in New York City makes great strides toward this goal as it reduces the barriers to these free meals. The last thing we would want to see happen is for our young people to choose unhealthy, less expensive options. On behalf of the American Heart Association, I applaud the efforts the Council Members to remove these cuts to such an important program.”

“The pennies that the city may save on meals will be overshadowed by the dollars spent administering the complicated school meal application process,” stated Áine Duggan, Vice President for Research, Policy & Education at the Food Bank For New York City.

Superintendent search

Former principal Roger Leon chosen as Newark’s new superintendent

Former principal and veteran administrator Roger Leon has been chosen as Newark’s new schools chief — its first since the city regained control of its schools.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the school board chose Leon — a Newark native backed by local elected officials — over two candidates with extensive experience in other large urban districts, but whose outsider status put them at a disadvantage. The son of Cuban immigrants, Leon takes the reins of a system whose population has become increasingly Hispanic: At 46 percent of the Newark Public Schools enrollment, Hispanic students now outnumber black students, who make up 44 percent of the enrollment.

In opting for Leon, the board also passed over A. Robert Gregory, another former Newark principal and the district’s interim superintendent, who rose through the ranks under the previous state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf — which some critics saw as a blemish on his record. The board actually picked Leon as superintendent once before, in 2015. But the state education commissioner, who still controlled the district at that time, ignored the board’s choice and appointed Cerf.

The board’s decision to again tap Leon seemed to signal a definitive break from the era of sweeping, controversial changes enacted by outsiders — namely, Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson. Instead, after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district in February and put the board back in charge of the schools, the board’s choice for superintendent suggests that it will rely on local talent and ideas to guide New Jersey’s largest school system in the new era of local control.

“After 22 years of being under state control, this is a new day,” said School Board Chair Josephine Garcia after Tuesday’s vote. “We look forward to working with the new superintendent.”

Leon grew up in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, where he attended the Hawkins Street School. He graduated from Science Park High School, the highly competitive magnet school, where he returned as a substitute math teacher while still a student at Rutgers University. He later coached the school’s renowned debate team.

He went on to teach middle-school algebra, then became principal of Dr. William H. Horton School and later University High School of the Humanities. For the past decade, he has been an assistant superintendent in the district.

As deputy chief academic officer under former superintendent Clifford Janey, he helped oversee several major policy changes, including new graduation requirements and district-wide grading standards. During that process, he recruited hundreds of parents, experts, and community members to join advisory committees to help craft the new policies.

More recently, he has played less of a policymaking role, instead helping to organize district-wide initiatives like a book-giveaway program for students. He also often authors the proclamations that the district awards to distinguished students and educators.

At a forum on Friday where the four superintendent finalists introduced themselves to the public, Leon said the district needs “a clear direction” for the future. He said his vision includes an “advanced technological curriculum” in schools, a focus on social-emotional learning, teacher training, and public-private partnerships to bring additional resources into schools.

“I will inherently be a proficient and influential agent of change,” he said, “because anything short of that is unacceptable.”

Leon arrives in his new position with a strong base of support, which was evident after Tuesday’s vote, when the audience erupted into cheers. In addition to the many parents and educators he has crossed paths with during his 25 years working in the district, he is also said to have close ties with State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, an influential lawmaker based in the politically powerful North Ward.

While Leon served under both Anderson and Cerf, he was far enough removed from the decision-making to escape the wrath of critics who opposed their policies, which included closing some district schools and overseeing the expansion of the charter-school sector. On Tuesday, John Abeigon, the head of the Newark Teachers Union, which clashed bitterly with Anderson and Cerf, said he looked forward to working with Leon.

“Once the new superintendent is sworn in,” he said, “we can begin rebuilding some of the more positive aspects of our district that were destroyed under the corporate control of Cerf.”

While the board has now officially offered Leon the position, it must still negotiate the terms of his contract. He will then start his new role on July 1.

Leon was one of four finalists selected by a search committee after a national search. A state plan had called for the board to choose from just three finalists. But someone on the search committee was unhappy with the three who were chosen and asked the state commissioner to allow a fourth finalist — despite the objections of some other committee members.

While the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting loudly cheered the board’s final decision, many people still criticized the search process. The board kept the names of the finalists secret until shortly before Friday’s forum, where audience members were not permitted to ask the candidates questions.

Still, even critics of the process said they were eager to work with the superintendent.

“The board made their decision,” said Wilhelmina Holder, a longtime parent activist. “So now we’re going to have to respect that decision and work on behalf of the children.”

Superintendent search

On eve of historic vote in Newark, questions arise about superintendent selection process

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office

When the Newark school board votes on a new superintendent Tuesday evening, as is expected, it will choose from four finalists — a notable departure from the state’s guidelines for the search, which called for a maximum of three finalists.

The change, the result of a behind-the-scenes dispute, is likely to raise questions about the integrity of the superintendent search process at a critical juncture, as the local school board takes control for the first time in over two decades.

The fourth finalist was added after a search committee had already agreed on its shortlist, and despite the objections of some committee members who wanted to stick with the initial three finalists, according to Kim Gaddy, a committee member and school board member, and Marques-Aquil Lewis, the former school board chair, who were both involved in the process.

The addition came at the insistence of other search committee members who were upset that a “strong” candidate had been left off the shortlist, according to Lewis. The additional name was added after the state education commissioner, who is overseeing the handover to local control, agreed to revise the state-authored playbook governing the transition.  

The identities of the four finalist candidates are public, but search committee members would not confirm which of the four was added to the list late.

The dispute over the superintendent selection process comes as the elected school board is choosing a schools chief for the first time since 1995, when the state seized control of the district. In February, the state provisionally returned control of the district to board, whose first major task is to choose a new superintendent.

Gaddy, the school board member who was on the seven-person search committee, said she did not even learn about the request for a fourth candidate until after it was sent. (Lewis, the board chairman who sent the request, disputes that.) Either way, Gaddy says the committee should have honored the process as it was written in the guidelines, which the district must adhere to in order to maintain control of its schools.

“When we finished with three members, that’s it. There should not have been any other discussion with the search committee,” said Gaddy, who declined to say who was the fourth finalist added to the list.

In order to fully return to local control, the district must follow a two-year state plan that spells out every detail of the transition. The plan stipulated that the board must conduct a national search for superintendent candidates, who would then be narrowed down to three finalists by the search committee.

During their deliberations, the committee members discussed the possibility of naming four finalists, but there was “no real consensus” on whether to ask for an additional finalist, according to Gaddy. So at its final meeting on April 21, the group decided to adhere to the plan and name three finalists.

However, immediately after that meeting, one or more members approached Lewis, who was then the chair of the school board, and asked him to send a request to the state asking for permission to name a fourth finalist, Lewis said. Lewis, who was not on the search committee, would not say who asked him to request the change. But he said they were unhappy with the shortlist of finalists.

“When the request was made, they felt there was a fourth candidate that was strong, that should have made the finals,” he said, adding that the person or persons did not tell him who the candidates were.

Lewis said he reached out to all seven committee members before making the request, but could not reach one member. (Lewis said he did speak with Gaddy, which she says she does not recall.)

Two members objected to the request, Lewis said. But he said that four agreed to it, so he sent a letter to the commissioner asking for a change to the transition plan.

Just after Lewis sent the request, he was replaced as board chair by Josephine Garcia. (Lewis did not run for re-election.) After becoming chair, Garcia re-sent the request to the state.

Once again, Gaddy said she was not informed in advance: “I found out after the fact. I was not asked to support it.” Instead, she said that Garcia said she would discuss the request at a board meeting — after it had already been sent. (Garcia did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

On April 27, Acting State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet sent Garcia a letter saying her request had been granted.

“I am in receipt of your request to amend the Transition Plan to allow the Superintendent Search Committee to submit four finalists to the full Board of Education for consideration,” Lamont wrote in the letter, which the state education department provided to Chalkbeat.

“In order to provider greater assistance to the district in finding the best candidate for the Superintendent position and to allow for consideration of all potentially qualified candidates,” Lamont continued, he agreed to amend the transition plan to allow for four finalists.

After the request was granted, four finalists were presented to the school board — including the one who did not make the original list of three. The four introduced themselves to the public on Friday, and were interviewed by the board in private on Saturday. The full board is expected to vote on which finalist to extend the offer to at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The finalists are former Baltimore city schools chief Andres Alonso; Newark Interim Superintendent A. Robert Gregory; Newark Assistant Superintendent Roger Leon; and Sito Narcisse, chief of schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee.

The search committee includes three board members: Gaddy, Garcia, and Leah Owens. Three other members were jointly chosen by the mayor and the state education commissioner: Former Newark superintendent Marion Bolden, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor, and Irene Cooper-Basch, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation. A seventh person, attorney Jennifer Carrillo-Perez, was appointed by the commissioner.

Only Gaddy would agree to speak on the record for this story; the other committee members did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the record.

Gaddy said she kept the names of the candidates confidential throughout the process, as required. However, she said she felt the entire process has been tainted by the decision to change the rules of the search without the agreement of the full search committee.

The transition plan “was a roadmap,” Gaddy said, that provided clear instructions: “‘You have two years to do A, B, C, and D.’”

“Now every time you don’t agree with A or you don’t agree with B, you’re going to write a letter to the commissioner?” she asked. “How is that following the plan and inspiring confidence in the ability to run this district?”