past deadline

State lawmakers end session without passing mayoral control. Where does that leave us?

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie on the Assembly floor.

The final day of New York state’s scheduled legislative session has come and gone — but there’s no final deal on mayoral control of city schools.

Lawmakers wrapped up the legislative session late Wednesday, though they could return to address mayoral control of New York City schools at a later date. The provision expires at the end of June, but blowing the session’s deadline takes state officials one step closer to letting the mayor’s governance of the nation’s largest school system lapse.

“This evening, the state legislature will adjourn its 2017 legislative session,” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said in a statement. “We would have preferred to have tied everything up with a nice neat bow and returned to our districts with nothing at all left on our plate, but under the circumstances, that just wasn’t possible.”

He also suggested that he supports mayoral control of city schools, as long as it comes with help for charter schools. “I support the renewal of mayoral control, as do my Senate Republican colleagues,” Flanagan said.

Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie admitted this outcome wasn’t perfect. “Sometimes in politics you don’t always get what you want,” he said on Wednesday night. He also reportedly said he had “no intention of coming back.”

For the past two years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has secured only one-year extensions of the policy, thanks largely to his fraught relationships with Senate Republicans and Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg received a seven-, then a six-year extension.)

Without mayoral control, New York City schools would revert back to a system with 32 community school boards — something even Mayor Bill de Blasio’s opponents do not support. Yet lawmakers are stuck in a deadlock over whether the extension should come with concessions, such as eliminating New York City’s charter school cap.

Mayoral control has lapsed before, providing a blueprint for what it might look like if it happened again. In July 2009, under Bloomberg, its expiration caused a brief reconstitution of the city’s Board of Education. But it took only a month before lawmakers returned to Albany and passed a multi-year extension.

The relatively small disruption caused by the lapse in 2009 leads some observers to conclude that letting the law expire will bring little harm to schools, teachers or students. That’s a far cry from the “chaos, gridlock, and corruption” predicted by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

But the first scenario assumes the law will be reinstated as quickly as it was in 2009, said Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. Every year is different, and this one is marked by “deep-seated” policy and personality conflicts between the mayor and Albany lawmakers, Kremer said. Also, notably, the Senate was in the midst of a leadership crisis when lawmakers failed to renew mayoral control in 2009.

“I think people are taking false comfort in saying ‘Listen, we blew through the deadline last time and nothing happened; we can do that again,’” Kremer said. “They really are playing a little bit with fire.”

So what exactly would it look like if mayoral control lapsed? Chalkbeat spelled that out in a step-by-step guide back in 2009, informed in part by a memo sent by Bloomberg’s staff outlining how they saw the transition at the time.

First, city officials would have to reconvene a citywide Board of Education with five appointments made by borough presidents and two by the mayor. That board would have the power to select a chancellor. The city followed that script in 2009, which resulted in a unanimous vote to retain Joel Klein as chancellor.

Some observers, like David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, feel confident the same would happen this time around.

“I fully expect that to go without any problem and that they will proceed to appoint Carmen [Fariña],” Bloomfield said.

To test his theory, Chalkbeat reached out to all five borough presidents earlier on Wednesday. Officials from three offices responded. The Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s director of communications said she is committed to keeping Carmen Fariña as chancellor. Officials from Borough President Eric Adams’s office said he was focused on renewing mayoral control. Officials from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz’s office did not commit to keeping the chancellor.

“The only commitment Borough President Katz will make at this time is to appoint a representative to the reconstituted Board of Education,” officials wrote in an email.

If mayoral control lapsed for more than a month, New York City would head into uncharted territory. At some point, the city is required to revive the community school boards, but those elections wouldn’t be held until spring 2018.

That leaves months of limbo. In 2009, there was some discussion of whether the chancellor could appoint trustees to community school boards in the interim. But a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said he interprets the law to mean there would be no community school boards until the following May. That means no community input, no ability to appoint a permanent superintendent, and likely no rezoning votes, she said.

Even though there’s only a slim chance this fight will last until May, de Blasio said he doesn’t want to take any chances.

“When you open up Pandora’s box,” the mayor said at a press conference Wednesday, “you don’t know what happens next.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: