Voter Turnout

Surprise ‘no’ vote at PEP muddles de Blasio’s mayoral control position

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
From left, mayoral appointees Ben Shuldiner, Lori Podvesker and Vanessa Leung at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in April. All three voted in favor of all of the city's colocation proposals this week.

A surprise no vote by the city’s education policy-making panel on Wednesday night highlights the fine line that Mayor Bill de Blasio must walk while lobbying lawmakers to keep control of the school system.

Roberto Soto-Carrión, a consistent supporter of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposals since the mayor appointed him to the panel 14 months ago, cast the decisive vote against the city’s plan for where to open Success Academy Midwood, a charter school, in 2016.

The vote surprised other panel members and even seemed to catch the de Blasio administration off guard. It marked only the second time in the 13-year history of mayoral control that the panel, whose 13 members include eight chosen by the mayor, rejected a city proposal. (The first rejection happened last year, just months into de Blasio’s tenure, and was reversed a month later.)

“I was a little shocked,” said Isaac Carmignani, a mayoral appointee who voted for the proposal.

The six yeas for the proposal were Staten Island Borough President representative Kamillah Payne-Hanks and mayoral appointees Vanessa Leung, Ben Shuldiner, Miguelina Zorilla-Aristy, Lori Podvesker and Carmignani. The four nays were Soto-Carrión, Robert Powell, the Bronx representative, Laura Zingmond, the Manhattan representative, and Elzora Cleveland, a mayoral appointee; Fred Baptiste, the Brooklyn representative. Two member, Norm Fruchter and Queens’ Deborah Dillingham were not there.

The rejection comes at a time when legislators are scrutinizing de Blasio’s control of the school system, and it suggests the delicacy of the mayor’s position in lobbying to keep control while also distancing himself from criticism leveled at his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

The law authorizing mayoral control expires at the end of June, and state lawmakers are considering whether to renew it for as many as three years, as de Blasio would like, or as little as one year.

On the one hand, the no vote undermines de Blasio’s argument — which he has been making strenuously to legislators — that mayoral control allows city policies to be made quickly and efficiently.

Success CEO Eva Moskowitz took aim at that claim in her reaction to the vote. “If Mayor de Blasio wants mayoral control, he should show he’s willing to use it,” she said in a statement. “If he won’t use it, then someone else needs to take control of the city’s schools.”

On the other hand, the no vote offers de Blasio ammunition to counter criticism that mayoral control means there are no checks on the mayor’s power. While that has not been a substantial theme of school governance talks in Albany this spring, it was a major line of attack on how Bloomberg ran the school system the last time mayoral control was renewed, in 2009. Bloomberg famously fired three panel members in 2004 the night before they planned to vote against a proposal to impose stricter promotion standards based on state test scores.

“I don’t think this is an indication that the mayor has no control,” said Laura Zingmond, a panel member appointed by the Manhattan borough president who also voted against Success co-location on Wednesday. “You don’t want a tyrant.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the city was “disappointed in the vote” but emphasized the value of listening to the public on education issues, something de Blasio promised in his campaign to do. The Success co-location proposal had received sharp criticism from representatives of the middle school that had been slated to share space.

“Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor [Carmen] Fariña are committed to meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders when making important decisions that impact the education of our city’s students and lead to improved student outcomes,” the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said in a statement. She pointed out that two other space plans involving Success Academy were approved, as was a co-location involving a new Icahn charter school in the Bronx.

How the panel’s power dynamics might affect the legislature’s mayoral control negotiations is not clear. The legislative session officially ends next Wednesday, but officials in Albany said they’re likely to stay longer because talks between the state’s leaders have moved slowly.

At least one lawmaker praised the panel’s vote. Rodneyse Bichotte, an assemblywoman whose district includes Andries Hudde Junior High School, where Success Academy Midwood had been proposed to open, said she discussed the vote with lawmakers on Thursday.

Bichotte, a Hudde graduate, said she was “partially surprised” to hear that the proposal was rejected but said she agreed with the decision. “It was a great thing,” she said.

One remaining mystery is what caused Soto-Carrión, the son of Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Gladys Carrión who has been a staunch supporter of city proposals, to turn against the proposal.

He had not previously expressed concerns about the proposal during briefings with city officials, other members said. At the meeting, Soto-Carrión, who did not respond emails seeking comment, said he was voting against it because had safety concerns about the co-location.

Elzora Cleveland, the other mayoral appointee who voted against the proposal, said she had not spoken to Soto-Carrión since the vote but thought he might have changed his mind once he learned more about the proposal during the meeting.

“In many instances hearing what’s presented to us at that time can change someone’s opinion,” Cleveland said. “It really can.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede