meet the new boss

When not in schools, Fariña spent first months with education's power brokers

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and Chancellor Carmen Fariña, along with principals union leaders, agreed on a plan Thursday to overhaul two struggling schools.

Michael Mulgrew’s cozy relationship with Chancellor Carmen Fariña was forged at the dinner table, not the negotiating table.

Before contract talks heated up in April, Fariña and the United Federation of Teachers president were monthly dining partners, her meeting schedule shows. The pair met in person at least four times at high-end restaurants and a greasy-spoon diner, and chatted on the phone several more times between January and April.

The schedule offers a detailed view of Fariña’s first months as head of the nation’s largest school system. They show that when she wasn’t visiting schools, Fariña met with Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, billionaire philanthropist George Soros, along with a host of advocates, executives, elected officials, and union representatives.

The schedule also offers a window into the political nature of Farina’s job responsibilities and a peek into Fariña’s talent search. In a two-day sprint in early January, Fariña met with three principals, two of whom would soon leave their schools to join the administration, and a then-New Jersey superintendent.

Many days were jam-packed with meetings, and few people got multiple time slots in her first few months. Union leaders, including Ernest Logan and Mark Canizzaro of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the city’s principals union, were exceptions, reflecting their positive relationship and a need to set the stage for contract negotiations.

The city announced a new contract for over 100,000 teachers and school staff in a celebratory May press conference, after which critics said the deal did not include enough union concessions.

In an interview, Mulgrew said his one-on-one meetings with Fariña preceding the agreement didn’t include discussions of labor issues in the contract. Rather, he said they talked about big ideas, like how the union and the city could work together.

“It was just very refreshing,” said Mulgrew, who said he stopped monthly coffee dates with de Blasio’s predecessor Michael Bloomberg with eight months left in his mayoral term.

Mulgrew and Fariña’s first meeting took place in mid-January at The Palm, a midtown steakhouse. The next month, it was breakfast at the Millennium Hilton around the corner from Mulgrew’s offices. Their last two dates were meetings at the Gee Whiz Diner on Fariña’s turf, just a few blocks from where she works at Tweed Courthouse.

Mulgrew said he needed no such arrangement with de Blasio because their communication is much better than it was with Bloomberg, who sparred publicly with the union on a host of education issues in his final years in office.

“I pick up the phone and talk to him. He picks up the phone and talk to me,” Mulgrew said of de Blasio. (The Department of Education declined to comment on Fariña’s meetings.)

Fariña’s first several meetings on the job were with top Department of Education brass and de Blasio aides. Within a week, she was branching out, meeting with InsideSchools’ founding editor to talk middle schools and with longtime organizer: Megan Hester of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Later that month, Fariña met with more outsiders. On Jan. 17, she met with Soros, New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman, and Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, the organization that Fariña consulted for before being appointed chancellor.

Other than Soros, Fariña met often with people in the business and philanthropy communities, including officials at the Wallace Foundation, which is funding a training program for superintendents, and the Robin Hood Foundation, a major charter school funder, and the Maverick Capital Foundation. She also frequently saw board members and officials from the department’s private fundraising arm, the Fund for Public Schools.

Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York, a business association, said one of her meetings with Fariña was to discuss how her members could support Fariña’s policy agenda. One result was that the Partnership placed a part-time liaison at the Department of Education tasked with establishing more partnerships between companies and career and technical high schools, like the one that exists between IBM and the Pathways to Early College High School in Crown Heights.

“Education is the top philanthropic priority of most corporations, but when we look at the actually being accomplished, it’s hard to see the impact,” Wylde said. “We feel that if we understand her agenda, we can mobilize employers in a more coordinated way.”

Another of Fariña’s first tasks was picking a leadership team. Two principals she met with early on, Lisa Fuentes of P.S. 24 and Phil Weinberg of the High School of Telecommunications, eventually left their schools to join Fariña. It’s unclear if the third principal, M.S. 223′s Ramon Gonzalez, or the the New Jersey superintendent, Brian Osborne, a former colleague of Fariña’s when she was deputy chancellor, were also on her shortlist. (A spokesperson for Fariña did not immediately respond to questions seeking clarification.)

Osborne, who now oversees the New Rochelle school district, said that his dinner with Fariña was “collegial” and simply an effort to “stay in touch.”

Click here for a complete version Fariña’s schedule that the department provided. A partial list is below:


Jan. 6: Irma Zardoya, president and CEO of the New York City Leadership Academy
Jan. 8: Megan Hester, Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Jan. 9: Clara Hemphill, InsideSchools
Jan. 9: Harold Levy, former New York City chancellor
Jan. 10: Phil Weinberg and Brian Osborne
Jan. 11: Christina Fuentes
Jan. 11: Ramon Gonzalez
Jan. 13: Phone call with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch
Jan. 22: Sharon Dunn and Louise Mirrer, New York Historical Society
Jan. 23: Rashid Davis, principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School.
Jan. 23: Will Miller, president of Wallace Foundation
Jan. 24: Irma Zardoya
Jan. 27: Tisch and John King, State Education Commissioner
Jan. 28: Catherine Nolan, State Assembly’s Education Committee Chair
Jan. 28: Joann Millman, State Assembly Member
Jan. 29: Kenyatte Reid, principal of Eagle Academy II
Jan. 29: Fariña promotes Weinberg to top teaching and learning post
Feb. 5: Todd Penner, Susan and Michael Dell Foundation
Feb. 5: Claire Sylvan, executive director of International Schools Network
Feb. 5: Norm Fruchter, Annenberg Institute of School Reform and Panel for Educational Policy member, Dr. Dorothy Siegel
Feb. 6: Maggie Siena, principal of the Peck Slip School
Feb. 10: New Dorp High School Principal Deirdre DeAngelis D’Alessio, Ramon Gonzalez, Kenyatte Reid, Christina Fuentes, Phil Weinberg
Feb. 12: Richard Kahan, founder and CEO of Urban Assembly
Feb. 13: De Blasio and Fariña defend decisions to keep schools open during snow storm.
Feb. 14: Rudy Crew, former chancellor
Feb. 18: Steve Strongin, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and board member of Fund for Public Schools
Feb. 20: Stan Litow, former deputy chancellor and president of IBM’s Foundation
Feb. 20: Paulette LoMonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services
Feb. 21: Pedro Noguera, New York University
Feb. 22: Meets with charter school leaders
Feb. 24: Lottie Almonte, Principal of Murry Bergtraum High School (site of Success co-location)
Feb. 24: Meets with elected officials
Feb. 25: Moskowitz launches Albany campaign
Feb. 26: Letitia James, public advocate
Feb. 27: Call with elected officials
Feb. 27: De Blasio cancels Success co-locations
Feb. 27: Charlotte Frank, McGraw-HIll
March 6: Scott Stringer, New York City comptroller
March 11: Breakfast with Michael Mulgrew
March 13: Seymour Fliegel, Center for Education Innovation-Public Education Association
March 14: Emary Aronson and David Saltzman, Robin Hood Foundation
March 14: Meeting with Portfolio team
March 17: Naomi Smith, principal of Central Park East II, whose expansion the city nixed.
March 17: Bob Hughes, President of New Visions for Public Schools
March 18: Irma Zardoya, New York City Leadership Academy
March 21; Nancy Zimpher, SUNY Chancellor
March 21: Catherine Nolan
March 21: Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University
March 22: Rudy Crew
April 1: English Language Learners meeting
April 1: Iris Blanc, director of Virtual Enterprises International, and Pier Duncan
April 3: Rafael Román Meléndez, Secretary of Education for Puerto Rico
April 3: Meeting with Qatar Foundation International
April 4: Funder briefing at Microsoft’s offices
April 4: Gifted & Talented admissions show wide inequities persist
April 5: Meeting with families of students with disabilities
April 6: NYSUT ousts president with support from UFT
April 7: Fariña launches Learning Partners Program
April 7: City wins federal funding for two P-TECH high schools
April 7: John King and Merryl Tisch
April 8: Tensions flare, then subside between de Blasio and Success charters
April 8: Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the City Council
April 8: Allison Sheehan, school support network leader
April 9: City announces changes to grade promotion policies
April 9: Kathryn Wylde and Katy Belot, Partnership for New York
April 10: Manhattan principals protest state reading tests
April 10: Erica Hamilton, director of City Year-New York City
April 10: Melinda Katz, Queens Borough President
April 11: Michael Casserly, Executive Director of Council of Great City Schools
April 11: Major restructuring under way at NYC DOE
April 12: 100 Day Speech. Says she has been to “almost 30 schools
April 16: Hazel Dukes, NAACP-NY
April 17: Clara Hemphill
April 17: Seymour Fliegel
April 21: Jaime Aquino, New Teacher Center, former Deputy Chancellor of NYC DOE

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.’”