back in black (updated)

Steiner grants Black waiver she needs to become chancellor

As expected, State Education Commissioner David Steiner has granted publishing executive Cathleen Black the waiver she needs to become the city’s next schools chancellor.

Steiner’s decision follows a deal struck between city and state officials, the details of which emerged late last week. The agreement called for Black to promote Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky to a new position of Chief Academic Officer and was designed to ameliorate Steiner’s concerns about Black’s lack of experience in the education field.

Under state law, the commissioner is allow to waive the requirements for education experience and certification if the chancellor candidate’s experience is “substantially equivalent.”

In his letter today, Steiner cites the waiver that his predecessor, Richard Mills, gave former Chancellor Harold Levy 2000. In that case, Mills wrote that the chancellor’s experience did not need to mirror the required credentials, but rather that the candidate’s experience has prepared her for the chancellor’s job.

“After careful review of the record before me it is my judgment that, when viewed in its entirety, Ms. Black’s training, background and experience are substantially equivalent to the certification requirements set forth in law,” Steiner writes.

Steiner’s decision may be the final step in what has been a bruising appointment process for Black.

Her next challenge will be to win the confidence of parents and teachers who worry that her lack of education credentials will hinder her performance. Last week, a poll reported that 62 percent of parents with children in city public schools disapprove of the chancellor appointee.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Steiner’s decision and pointed towards the preparation that Black will need before she assumes the chancellor position in January. When Bloomberg announced her appointment, Black asked for patience as she got “up to speed” on the school system.

“Over the next weeks and months, [Black] will be meeting with parents, teachers, elected officials and community leaders to listen and hear from them,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “She knows, as I do, that nothing is more important than providing a world class education for our kids.”

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Black’s appointment, said that he intends to sue to block the appointment.

“Our schools deserve a qualified chancellor, not someone who requires a private tutor on the public payroll to make up for her deficient resume,” Jeffries said in a statement. “Commissioner Steiner has violated the law and we are prepared to challenge this ill-advised decision in court.”

The assemblyman is among several opponents to Black’s appointment who have been preparing to sue if the appointment goes through.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said that he hoped Black and Suransky would change course from some of the policies introduced by outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein.

“For the last eight years the system has been obsessed with a test preparation regimen that has narrowed the curriculum and led to the decline of many subjects and programs in our schools,” Mulgrew said. “Now that Ms. Black and Mr. Polakow-Suransky have been approved by State Education Commissioner Steiner, I hope we can move forward on the many challenges the system faces, including creating a curriculum that will give students a well-rounded education, new and better interventions for struggling students, and  early action to turn around failing schools.”

But it seems unlikely that Black will diverge significantly from the policies of her predecessor. In a statement today, Black said that she intends to follow Klein’s path of reforms.

“It’s vitally important that we continue building on the progress that Joel Klein and the Mayor have made over the last 8 years, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get going,” she said.

Black’s appointment was thrown into uncertainty last week when the panel of education experts Steiner convened to advise on the waiver request recommended that he deny it. Half of the members of the panel voted to deny it unconditionally. Two members supported Black’s appointment, and the remaining two voted to wait and reconsider the request under different circumstances.

After last week’s deal to promote Suransky to act as educational expert alongside Black, Steiner took the new proposal back to his panel members, he writes.

“Those that were previously supportive, in whole or in part, viewed the new submission positively,” Steiner writes, suggesting that the four panel members who opposed Black’s appointment remain troubled by the compromise deal.

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.”