transition talk

Why hasn't Bill de Blasio appointed a schools chancellor yet?


The day after Bill de Blasio’s landslide general election victory, he pledged to move quickly on what he called his administration’s two most important appointments: police commissioner and schools chancellor.

He took care of the former within a month, and on Nov. 25 he told reporters he’d have information about a chancellor announcement “in a couple more days down the road.” But six weeks into a transition period that is now nearing its end, educators are not only wondering who will be in charge of the school system on Jan. 1. They’re also asking, what’s taking so long?

“Everybody is going crazy,” CUNY education professor David Bloomfield said.

That anxiety has permeated the Department of Education’s offices at Tweed Courthouse, which houses thousands of central staff members, as well as the hallways of the city’s 1,800 schools, which let out today for the 12-day holiday break.

“We’re as interested in it as you are,” said Gary Nusser, assistant principal at M.S. 88 in Park Slope.

So why hasn’t de Blasio picked someone yet? The company line is that he still hasn’t made his mind up and that his deliberation is an illustration of the extreme care he’s putting into the decision—though that also echoes criticisms of his indecisiveness that have dogged de Blasio throughout his political career.

Some privately doubt the level of uncertainty facing de Blasio. Sources say they haven’t heard of a final decision, but that there is a sense that former deputy chancellor Carmen Farina will be the inevitable pick, a rumor that has been amplified by recent stories in the New York Times and the New York Post.

If that’s true, then why are they waiting so long to make the announcement? Originally, Farina told GothamSchools — and, we’re told, de Blasio’s team — that she wasn’t interested in taking the job. But she’s stopped saying that publicly.

Nusser and the rest of the M.S. 88 staff had a chance to gather some inside insight yesterday when Farina, a former superintendent of M.S. 88, stopped by for a three-hour visit to tour the school and observe lessons.

“You guys know as much as I do,” Farina said when asked about her candidacy, according to Nusser. “I’m just as much in the dark as you are.”

Another explanation for the delay could be that there is some behind-the-scenes work going on to secure additional people to take key positions in the education department. It’s unclear how much of the current cabinet will remain long after Bloomberg exits, since de Blasio signaled during the campaign that he wants a clean break from the current administration.

Many observers expected the announcement to come this week at the very latest. But the transition team’s plans might simply be more backed up than they anticipated.

De Blasio’s team had been planning a “major education-related announcement” on Dec. 16, according to an email sent out last week on behalf of Irwin Redlener and Jeffrey Sachs, two leading supporters of de Blasio’s new pre-K lobbying campaign, UPKNYC. The campaign’s launch, the only public event related to education this week, didn’t happen until Thursday.

At that event, de Blasio said that the decision would be coming soon. “I’m not going to jump too soon,” he said.

The delay leaves next week, a dead period in the news cycle when schools are closed and teachers and families are less likely to be looking for daily updates about who their chancellor will be when they return to school on Jan. 2. 

The narrow window also calls into question the level of preparation that the next chancellor will have to take over immediately in the new year.

Much of the school system’s day-to-day operations, like school lunch delivery and school funding, will likely buzz along without too much disruption. And while Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s last day is Dec. 31, second-in-command Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer, will stay on to lead.

But Polakow-Suransky, de Blasio and his next chancellor will face at least one immediate crisis: As many as 40,000 students could be without bus transportation on their first day back because the city’s largest school bus contractor is going out of business on Dec. 31, a bankruptcy tied to the city’s cost-saving decision to bid out new contracts without seniority provisions last year.

“I think it would have been beneficial to the person to have had more of a transition period,” said Veronica Conforme, former DOE chief operating officer. “They’re walking into a team that’s already built. Getting to know the folks is important and this person is not going to get a chance to do that.”

“The types of things that come in front of the chancellor every day are very urgent, everything from a student getting hurt over the weekend, to a school facility issue,” Conforme added. “There is not day where nothing happens.”

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”