close call (updated)

City breathes new life into a charter school it once tried to close

City lawyers are in negotiations to extend the life of a charter school that the education department tried last year to close, according to a lawyer representing the school’s parents.

Details aren’t final, but the terms are likely to include an agreement to grant the school, Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School, an extension beyond this school year, according to the lawyer, Arthur Schwartz. The city and school are still negotiating how the school would be evaluated in subsequent renewal decisions moving forward, he said.

Schwartz filed a second lawsuit on behalf of PPA’s parents in May, arguing that the city’s handling of the closure procedure violated their due process rights. A judge hasn’t yet ruled on that issue, but a restraining order meant the city had to abandon its closure plans for this year.

“We won, basically,” Schwartz said this week. “We won’t have a decision on what the law is, but who cares?”

A spokeswoman for the city confirmed that the two sides “are discussing a possible resolution” but declined to provide more details.

UPDATE: City law department officials said the court order does not necessarily mean the school is off the hook for the year. If the court were to rule in the department’s favor later, the department could take action to close the school mid-year.

An extension would be a significant about-face for the city. Citing insufficient test score gains, it announced in January that it would close Peninsula Prep when its charter expired in June. But the school’s board of trustees fought back in court as well, winning the restraining order, which allowed the school to admit and enroll new students until the judge made her decision.The ruling in effect extended PPA’s charter for one year. Another extension would suggest that the city determined parents’ claims that the school was improving had merit.

Last month, officials from the Department of Education’s newly restructured charter school office reached out to Schwartz and asked if PPA’s parents were interested in making a deal, Schwartz said.

PPA’s board and its principal initially resisted making any structural changes at the school. One idea would have been to hand the school over to a new operator, replacing the board and principal, but nothing was ever proposed and a parent leader said the plan was never taken seriously.

But that changed in recent months, Schwartz said, particularly after city officials reached out last month to see if the school and its parents would be interested in making a deal.

One of the changes includes a shake-up in leadership. On Wednesday, Principal Ericka Wala told parents that new administrators were being brought on at the school. Ruth Peets-Butcher, a former charter school principal on Long Island, was named associate principal.

This week, Wala said that she planned to stay on and help the school transition.

“I’m here to make sure things are moving as smoothly as possible,” said Wala. She said the decision to leave was her own and that she made the decision because an ill family member would require her to take more time off. Wala is also the lead applicant for Bright Futures Academy Charter School, a proposed charter school that was recently accepted by the state education department to submit its full application.

Wala said her decision to step down had nothing to do with her new charter school.

“I poured my heart and soul into this school so it’s important to me as well,” Wala added. “I want to make sure the school is situated well and will continue to move forward.”

PPA was one of two charter schools the city tried but failed to close this year. The city also tried to shutter Williamsburg Charter High School because of financial improprieties on the part of its founder. But parents at that school fought back in court, and a judge ruled this spring that the city’s process for closing the school was deeply flawed and lacked enough public notification. The school reopened this week.

Williamsburg Charter families also got help in court from Schwartz and his law firm, Advocates for Justice, which in the past has more often represented parents who oppose district school closures in large part because the schools often end up being replaced with charter schools. Last year,he represented parents who wanted to force charter schools to pay rent when they occupy public space.

The irony isn’t lost on Schwartz.

“It’s interesting: We’re two for two in charter school cases,” Schwartz said, adding that he’s never won a case that tried to reverse a district school closure.

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.”