Q and A

Suspensions, evaluations and the Absent Teacher Reserve: What a new union boss has on his mind

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mark Cannizzaro

Mark Cannizzaro thinks New York City principals have a nearly impossible job. Now, it’s up to him to help them get it done.

This September, Cannizzaro will become president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents more than 6,000 school principals, assistant principals and other education administrators.

“Nothing is more challenging than leading a school or being in school leadership,” Cannizzaro told Chalkbeat.

After a decade of leadership, Ernest Logan recently announced his retirement. Cannizzaro, who has served as executive vice president, will take the helm until at least 2018, when the next election will be held.

The union’s relationship with City Hall has been relatively smooth under Mayor Bill de Blasio. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be clashes. The CSA has been outspoken about its concerns over changes to school discipline policies and about the Renewal program, the city’s expensive turnaround strategy for struggling schools.

Principals themselves have also criticized what they see as a loss of autonomy under the current administration — a far cry from when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein described principals as the CEOs of their schools. For example, the education department recently announced it would place unassigned educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools that have vacancies, even potentially over principals’ objections.

In an interview with Chalkbeat just before taking on his new role, Cannizzaro, a former Staten Island principal, suggested he would take a quieter approach to getting things done.

He also seemed to tone down his predecessor’s criticism of Renewal, saying there have been tangible gains in some schools.

Here’s what else he had to say about principal evaluations, working with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and the bane of school administrators everywhere: mountains of paperwork.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the single most pressing problem facing principals today?

Let me talk about the problem the system faces with our folks right now. It’s a retention and recruitment problem.

The job is virtually, by the numbers, undoable. The amount of things that you have to know and be able to do — from the size of the chancellor’s regulations to standard operating procedure, the manuals, the paperwork, all of the work and the compliance issues — the workload is tremendous. And the seasoned principal finds the shortcuts to get the job done. A new person coming in doesn’t know right away what things they can work around, which becomes overwhelming.

I think between the paperwork and the workload, budgets are always a challenge. Too many people spend their summers fighting for the basic minimum when they should be spending their summers planning curriculum and setting up their schools.

These have been ongoing issues. I was a principal under the prior administration and I had the issues of paperwork and budget concerns then, also.

Under de Blasio, the school system was reorganized in such a way that principals had to answer to superintendents again. What do you think of that change?

I was a proponent of superintendents being brought back into the districts and empowered, mainly because I always felt it was important to have someone who knew my school well to also be the person who was evaluating me, rating me and hopefully providing support to me.

In the former structure, it’s not that I felt that there was a lack of support. I felt the support was OK. But mainly, the evaluation was based on statistics that came out and the person who was evaluating didn’t always have such an intimate relationship to have context around those numbers.

Should student test scores count in principal evaluations?

I think it’s difficult to get around test scores being used at all, but right now they count for about 50 percent of an evaluation, which is way too much. We’re talking about test scores, really, in math and English. … Our school leaders feel that they are responsible for so many things other than just math and English.

What changes under this administration have been the most helpful for principals?

I mean, look, we have an educator, which I think is a huge plus because we’re able to speak to the chancellor. She’s been there. She’s walked in those shoes.

Now, have we had — and I’m not going to share specifics with you — but have we had concerns where we felt that, “Hey, don’t forget us. We’re here leading this system, making this system work”? Of course. But we had those concerns also with the other administration from time to time.

Have there been any other changes under this current administration that were particularly positive or negative for your members?

I think what’s been most helpful is, it’s very, very easy to pick up the phone to have conversations. Carmen has been very open. She comes here often, she comes to our chancellor’s consultations — which is a change. And I think that’s a positive change.

We meet once a month with a team of the chancellor’s representatives. And we just talk about issues. She comes herself to that — almost all of them. She’s here and she is listening.

Some principals have told us that the restructuring of the system has led to more micromanagement on the ground. Is that a fair perception?

I don’t know if micromanagement is the term, but in some areas, our folks feel that their discretion or their ability to make the decisions — it’s not what it should be.

Can you give an example?

The changes in the discipline code. The decision whether to suspend a child shouldn’t be on anyone else’s plate other than the principal of the school. They need to make the decision because they’re closest. They know the effects on the community. They know what’s best for the child, as well as the other children.

When a child’s behavior is unacceptable, we understand that doesn’t mean the child needs to be cast aside. We need to also be mindful of the fact that there is still a child there that now needs to be welcomed back when he or she comes back. So there are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing.

But wasn’t the restriction on K-2 suspensions enacted because suspensions were being overused?

You can’t jump to suspension. Suspension is not the first answer to most things, unless something was so egregious. And there were probably areas and pockets where it maybe was being overused. But in a system this large, those are the areas where you need to address and do a little digging and find out what it is, and what’s the reason and how come this is happening here? And let’s address how come it’s happening here.

You’ve been pretty measured so far in talking about the city’s decision to place educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools. Isn’t this a reversal of the chancellor’s promise not to use forced placement?

If I’ve been measured, it’s because we haven’t seen the implementation yet, and there’s no reason to not be measured until we see the implementation. And we’ve had a very consistent, ongoing and open dialogue with the DOE [Department of Education] on being able to work together to make sure that schools ultimately benefit and no one is harmed here.

Obviously it’s a change in the way they’ve been doing things. But if you go back, there was a time when every excessed person was placed. Then there was this change in policy — which listen, for school leaders, it was great. You didn’t have someone placed in your building.

But then the practical issues came in. The media and the public were saying, “Look at all of this money that is being spent.” So everybody wanted to solve it their own way. But remember the way that this came up was through collective bargaining.

The United Federation of Teachers did the bargaining. But your members are also affected by the change.

Don’t get me wrong, every principal would want their ability to simply pick whomever they want whenever they want. But there’s a reality here and we’re going to work very closely to make sure this is done well.

Your predecessor was pretty outspoken about the rollout of the Renewal program. He once called it a “recipe for disaster.” What do you think about it?

The rollout had some real issues. We’ve since gotten a lot better.

In an effort to improve the Renewal schools, there were so many people going in to evaluate and probably not enough people going in to support one vision. So you had a group come in and say, “OK, let’s do this.” And another group would come in and maybe they hadn’t communicated the way they should have.

[Now] I think there’s just better communication between the school, who’s supporting and who’s evaluating.

The principal is the one at the center of this. The principal is the one who is ultimately responsible. The principal is the one who is being held accountable. The support has to come around what the principal needs.

We recently reported that schools in the program aren’t showing significant gains compared to schools not in the program.

There are some schools making some tremendous gains, and there are schools that need more resources. The other thing is, how old is the Renewal program? Do some research and find out how long it normally takes for school turnaround to show results in the scores.

But the mayor was the one who promised “fast and intense” improvements in these schools.

Everybody is in a rush, and I understand why everybody is in a rush. What it means is, let’s go back to the superintendent relationship. I want to know from the superintendent, who is back in the schools, how does this school look today compared to the way it looked when it started. If there’s improvement, the scores will follow.

How will your leadership be different from Logan’s?

I’m going to build on some of the great things that Ernie has done.

You probably won’t necessarily know about all of my issues unless I feel like I need you to know about my issues. If I can get something done quietly, that’s probably the most effective way to accomplish something.

But I also have a habit of telling the truth. And sometimes people will agree, and sometimes people won’t agree — but I like to engage people in the debate, then.

We have 6,300 or 6,400 active members. Many, many of them go about their jobs every day and do a great job. We don’t hear from them that much and they don’t hear from us as much as they probably should. This is their union. We need to get that mantra out there.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.