breaking

State says districts without evaluation deals to lose funds Jan. 1

The State Education Department will cut districts off from one pot of federal funds within days unless they settle on new teacher evaluations for some struggling schools.

In a move that the state teachers union called “an arbitrary exercise of brinksmanship,” State Education Commissioner John King issued the threat today to New York City and nine other school districts that are receiving School Improvement Grants to overhaul their lowest-performing schools.

King said all but two had not met the requirements to continue receiving the funds — most notably, the requirement to hammer out agreements on new teacher evaluation systems. Those agreements are supposed to be in place by Dec. 31.

In July, city and UFT officials reached an agreement to roll out new teacher evaluations in 33 of the schools, known as “persistently low-achieving” schools. That agreement came a week after the state turned up the pressure on the city and just in time for the schools to receive nearly $60 million in federal funds.

But city officials said today that the agreement was only a “framework” that must be formalized by the Dec. 31 deadline.

If that doesn’t happen, a funding freeze would not only prevent new reforms from being put in place but also could threaten changes that are already underway. Yonkers is warning that SIG-funded teaching positions at some of its schools would effectively be terminated. Some New York City schools have “master teachers” whose salaries are paid out of the federal grant money.

City and union officials say they remain locked in negotiations — which are sure to be tense after a semester when relations between the groups grew strained over the new evaluation system’s rollout.

The stakes are also higher now because a deadline for all city schools to adopt new teacher evaluations is just six months away. King’s ultimatum today applies only to the 33 schools already being overhauled and 11 additional schools that the city must revamp according to federal guidelines. But a similar strategy in June could put hundreds of millions of Race to the Top dollars in jeopardy if new teacher evaluations are still not finalized.

Last month, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city would not strike an evaluation deal just to keep federal funds flowing. Today, he said city officials were in talks with the union but left the door open to stalemate.

“For months, we have been in engaged in discussions with the UFT around implementing a teacher evaluation model in the SIG schools,” Walcott said in a statement. “We continue to engage in discussions with the UFT, and all parties are cognizant of the deadline.”

UFT President Michael Mulgrew sounded a similar note in a statement today.

“We have been meeting with the DOE in an attempt to resolve these issues,” he said. “We have further meetings scheduled this week.”

The state teachers union, NYSUT, said a funding freeze would disproportionately affect schools attended by poor students. Instead of cutting off funding to struggling schools, the union said King should ask federal authorities for more time. More than a dozen states have already gotten extensions, according to NYSUT.

But King signaled that he planned to stick to the deadline, no matter the consequences.

“These funds are targeted to help troubled schools. The last thing the students need is to lose resources because the adults who run those schools won’t fulfill their responsibilities,” he said in a statement. “The clock is ticking. When the ball drops at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the money drops off the table, and it will be difficult to get it back.”

The other districts at risk of losing federal funds are Buffalo, Yonkers, Albany, Schenectady, Roosevelt, Poughkeepsie and Greenburgh 11. Rochester and Syracuse have turned in materials for the state to review, according to SED. The Journal-News reports that Poughkeepsie is on track to meet the Jan. 1 deadline but that Yonkers cannot and would seek legal recourse if the funding freeze takes place.

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Indianapolis Public Schools teachers union president out after alleged mishandling of more than $100,000

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Rhondalyn Cornett, center, at a 2017 IPS board meeting. Cornett resigned under pressure from the state teachers union.

The president of Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union has resigned under pressure after an investigation indicated she had mishandled more than $100,000 over several years, the state’s largest teachers union announced Saturday.

The Indiana State Teachers Association investigation came after a member of the district union filed a complaint with the state union in June over how Rhondalyn Cornett operated the group. An audit completed this week “indicates serious financial mismanagement and misappropriation,” a statement from an ISTA spokeswoman said.

ISTA’s investigation discovered that Cornett had used her IEA debit card to withdraw about $100,000 in cash for personal use, spokeswoman Kim Clements-Johnson said. She said there were also additional debit card transactions that could not be accounted for, but she declined to elaborate on the amount of those expenses. The money in question has not been recovered, Clements-Johnson said.

In a text message, Cornett said she had no comment.

Cornett was asked to resign and did so effective Thursday, the statement said. Ronald Swann, the district union’s vice president, is now president, and helped lead the investigation and audit, the statement said.

“Because of the IEA president’s failure to meet her obligations toward sound financial management of members’ dues dollars, she has complied with a demand that she resign,” the statement said. “New local leadership has assumed control and are prepared to deal with the issue and move the Association forward in a positive direction.”

ISTA has taken control of the district union’s finances and will continue to manage them for the next two years. The statement said ISTA has also filed an insurance claim to possibly get back dues money for union members. The state union said it might also consider legal action.

The state union reported the mismanagement to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Organized Crime Section. It is not yet clear if any crimes have been committed, the statement said.

Cornett has been a teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools since 1994. She has been president of IEA since 2013, and she was reelected last spring.

IEA is a local association affiliated with the statewide union, which is Indiana’s branch of the National Education Association. The Indianapolis Public Schools’ teachers union represents about 900 members, according to a state report. That’s just under half the educators in the bargaining unit.

The IPS union, in addition to the statewide union, has often pushed back against some of the rapid changes in Indianapolis Public Schools, including the district’s partnerships with outside charter or nonprofit operators to run what are known as innovation schools. While those schools still fall under the district’s umbrella, its teachers are employed by the operators, rather then the district, so they are not able to join the district’s union.

Earlier this week, the teachers unions won a political victory at the ballot box. Two candidates who were endorsed by the political arms of the state and local teachers unions won seats in the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The candidates ousted two school-choice friendly incumbents with the help of the IPS Community Coalition, a group of community advocates critical of the district administration that has received funding from the NEA.

Charter Dispute

As León pushes for changes, some charters consider leaving Newark’s unified enrollment system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark students arriving at a district school on the first day of class.

Newark families could have a harder time applying to certain schools this year if changes sought by the district’s new superintendent spur some charter schools to pull out of the city’s common enrollment system, charter advocates say.

Superintendent Roger León is pushing for the system to no longer assign schools extra students to offset attrition over the summer, according to people briefed on negotiations over the enrollment system. The practice, known as “overmatching,” helps both district and charter schools plan for the coming year, but it also ensures that charter schools fill their seats — something León appears less willing to help with than his charter-friendly predecessors.

The dispute means that district and charter leaders are still hashing out rules for the five-year-old common enrollment system just weeks before applications are due to open. Now, some charter schools are considering withdrawing entirely — potentially triggering a return to the fragmented application process families faced before universal enrollment launched in 2013, charter proponents say.

“Realistically, it’s possible that could happen,” said one of the people briefed on the talks who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous while negotiations continue. “We’re really late in the game right now.”

The dustup marks another instance where León appears eager to roll back his predecessors’ policies — even if it means moving quickly, before all the potential consequences are known.

On the first day of classes, he told principals he was eliminating extra hours for struggling schools, forcing them to scramble to reset their schedules. And before even taking office on July 1, he pushed out dozens of top officials — a move the school board, which was not consulted in advance, partially blocked.

One of those officials was the district’s head of enrollment, Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon. She oversaw the universal enrollment system, called “Newark Enrolls,” which lets families apply to most of the city’s traditional, magnet, and charter schools using a single application. After a chaotic launch that outraged many parents, the system today gets high marks on user surveys. Yet it remains controversial among critics of charter schools who view it little more than a ploy to funnel students into the privately managed schools.

One feature of the system is that it assigns schools — both charter and district — more students than they have space for. This “overmatching” is done to account for the attrition that occurs each year as some students leave the city or decamp to private or county schools. A former district official estimated that most schools lose between 5 to 20 percent of their assigned students that way.

Now, overmatching has become a sticking point in the negotiations, according to those with knowledge of the talks, as León has proposed ending the practice.

It is unclear why, and the district did not make León available for an interview. One possibility is that doing so might appease critics without dismantling common enrollment, which León has said he wants to keep.

But some people in the charter sector believe the superintendent, wanting to retain as many students as possible in the district, is loath to send charters extra students. That prospect has alarmed some charter school operators who fear they could end up with unfilled seats and reduced budgets, as school funding is based on enrollment.

To illustrate how overmatching works, a person connected to the charter-school sector gave an example of a high school with 100 available ninth-grade seats. In the past, the enrollment system might assign the school 115 students based on the assumption that roughly 15 students would not end up attending. If the system only matched 100 students to the school, then it could be left with 15 open seats.

“At an independent charter school, when those 15 students don’t show up, there’s no money coming from anywhere else to adjust their budget,” the person said. “That could put them out of business.”

If the district stops sending charter schools extra students, those schools are likely to start admitting more students from their waitlists. If that happens, district schools may suddenly lose students who were on their rosters. They would then have openings that are likely to be filled by students who arrive midyear, who are often some of the most challenging students to serve.

“District principals hate losing kids to charter waitlists,” the former district official said. “It creates a lot of instability.”

León met with charter-school representatives Thursday, but no final agreement was reached. Even if the two sides work out a compromise, the district’s board of education and each of the boards overseeing the participating charter schools must still vote on the plan.

They have limited time to do that without disrupting the normal admissions cycle. Typically, families can start applying to schools for the following year in the first week of December.

Newark Public Schools spokeswoman Tracy Munford said enrollment would start at the same time this year even though the district-charter enrollment agreement has not been finalized.

“This is in progress and we look forward to it being completed soon,” she said in an email.

Meanwhile, some charter school leaders have discussed the possibility of forming a separate charter-only enrollment system if they decide to withdraw from Newark Enrolls. The heads of smaller charter-school organizations are most concerned about the proposed changes, according to a person familiar with their thinking.

Last school year, 13 of the city’s 19 charter school operators participated in the joint enrollment system. (The others each handled their own admissions.) Most families who used Newark Enrolls were matched with one of the top three choices on their applications — 94 percent who applied to kindergarten got a top pick, as did 70 percent who applied to ninth-grade.

Assigning schools more students than they have space for allows additional students to be matched with high-demand schools, said Jesse Margolis, an education researcher who has studied Newark’s enrollment system. The schools end up with roughly the right number of students because some of those on their rosters never show up. And students who would have been assigned to a less popular school if the system hadn’t overmatched instead get to attend one at the top of their list.

“Overmatching is a way of helping kids get their preferences,” said Margolis, who co-wrote a favorable report about Newark Enrolls commissioned by the district’s previous superintendent, Christopher Cerf. “And it helps schools have stable, predictable enrollments.”

Correction: This story has been updated to remove an inaccurate explanation for why some charter schools are more wary of a change to enrollment rules than others.