money matters

SUNY charter chair: We won’t authorize more schools without more funding

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
SUNY Charter School Institute Executive Director Susan Miller Barker, SUNY trustee Joseph Belluck, and general counsel Ralph Rossi in 2014.

If SUNY is going to oversee more charter schools, it’s going to need more money, the chair of its charter-school committee said Monday.

Trustee Joseph Belluck said SUNY is facing a choice between maintaining the Charter School Institute’s strict oversight or stretching its staff thin by authorizing more New York City charter schools, as the state legislature allowed in a deal approved last week. Belluck said his decision was clear.

“I will say this now: I am not scheduling a vote on a single charter, a new charter, until there are additional resources allocated to the Charter School Institute,” Belluck said.

“I am saying it to the charter community and the legislature and everybody else. I am a very stubborn person. I will not change my mind about this,” he added. “If you want more charters in New York City or in upstate New York, you need to figure out a way to give us the resources to do it.”

SUNY is one of two entities, along with the Board of Regents, that can approve new charter schools in New York state. Until last week’s legislative deal, New York City charters were divided into those set aside for the Regents and for SUNY. SUNY had nearly exhausted its supply, with only one remaining charter.

The new law allows 50 additional charter schools to open in New York City, and allows those applicants to choose between the Regents and SUNY, the preferred authorizer of some of the city’s charter-school networks, including Success Academy. If schools rush to SUNY, Belluck said, the situation could become untenable.

“I do not think it would be the responsible thing for me to add more charters to the Institute’s workload without some additional funding,” he said. “I am personally very disappointed that the legislation that just passed did not include some additional funding for our work.”

SUNY Charter School Institute’s budget for the coming school year, when it will oversee 146 schools, is $2.58 million. The Institute’s funding has trended downward for years even as it added more schools, and next year’s budget is less than the Institute was allocated in 2009-10, when the Institute oversaw just 68 schools, though it represents an increase over its $2.44 million budget for 2014-15.

Few were ready to offer additional support Monday.

“We fully expect the Charter Institute and SUNY to comply with the law and approve applications for high-performing charter schools, as it would be irresponsible not to,” a Cuomo administration official said in a statement, which praised the Institute’s “impeccable” track record. “This year, the State did approve an additional 5.8% increase for the Charter Institute, while many other agencies were held flat, so we believe they have the resources to handle any additional workload.”

The New York City Charter Center was also critical of any potential delay in approving new schools.

“While we are sympathetic to the need of charter authorizers, including SUNY, to have sufficient resources to accomplish their critical oversight role, nothing can or should delay new great public charter schools from opening,” Charter Center CEO James Merriman said in statement.

Merriman said he hoped SUNY would quickly release a request for proposals, which would kick off another round of charter applications. Susan Miller Barker, the Institute’s executive director, said during Monday’s meeting that one was ready to be posted later this week.

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.


Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.