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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

 

Opinion

Opinion

De Blasio's Next Move on Charters


de-blasio-prek-photo

Mayor de Blasio reads to a pre-k class (nyc.gov)


An analysis of the new State charter school siting law demonstrates that the City has the ability to decide, as a regular practice, to purchase or rent charter facilities instead of engaging in endless co-location battles. This would enable the Mayor to keep his campaign promise to tamp down co-locations while appeasing charter advocates who backed the new law.

Despite a widespread assumption that the City can only offer off-site space if co-location is impossible, the recently enacted State statute on co-locations requires the charter school to request co-location but gives the City an equal option of responding either with a proposed co-located site or a non-Department of Education private or public building.

The law even opens to question whether such a decision by the City is appealable (the appeals provision only refers to "co-location"), but assuming a charter's right to appeal an off-site decision, the standard of appellate review favors the City, as clearly stated in recent court decisions holding as reasonable Mayor Bloomberg's charter co-location decisions. Those cases were misunderstood as charter victories, but their real importance is that they upheld the city's discretionary authority to determine charter sites. Under the law, reversing such a decision requires a finding that the city's proposal was "arbitrary and capricious," a very high standard for charters to meet. The new statute explicitly incorporates that standard.

As a result, the City could successfully defend a good faith off-site offer without charter acquiescence. But why wouldn't a charter prefer independent space, especially given all of the tension over space sharing and district school displacement? I'm foreseeing deals in which the charters will agree; move into their own sites, free and clear without co-location hassles and with School Construction Authority renovations thrown in!

Where co-location arrangements make sense in schools without future over-crowding or other instructional detriments, such decisions would be financially preferable. But the governor and Legislature created the payment obligation, so any mayoral decision to cover charter rental costs instead of co-locating should be laid at the State's door, not the City's. And the City's sole share is limited to a $40 million ceiling, after which a State contribution is triggered with federal charter school aid also likely to be available.
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While the $40+ million in possible rental payments are attributable to the City's annual expense budget, purchase or renovations are capital items. Remember the new administration's cut of $210 million in the capital budget that Bloomberg had earmarked for off-site charters, arguably the action that set off this real estate scramble? That previously committed money is still available and, if the editorial pages didn't object to Bloomberg's handing it over to charters, they can hardly object to de Blasio's pressured re-allocation.

A further reason for highlighting the mayor's discretionary siting power, one of the few he actually has over charters since their operations are intentionally out of the hands of the mayor and chancellor, is the likelihood that school space will soon become scarcer. Will we suddenly demolish a bunch of buildings? No. But the mayor has a commission, working behind the scenes, which will soon recommend changes in the usage formula used for calculating school overcrowding, known as the Blue Book. The old formula, which Bloomberg used to justify spaces for charter co-locations, is likely to be recalibrated to require more space per child plus the need for libraries and art spaces, significantly lowering the threshold at which a school is designated fully enrolled. Add to that a promised decrease in class size and the need for pre-k space. Poof!, an immediate and significant decrease in available space for co-located charter or traditional public schools.

As politicians, budget experts, and lawyers toil over the intricacies of school siting under the State's new rules, it is to be hoped that educators, parents, and students are allowed a voice in these determinations. If so, a new spirit of cooperation, if not co-location, may result.

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David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center; contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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The statute in pertinent part, at NYS Education Law § 2853(3)(E)(1), requires the city to "(A) offer at no cost to the charter school a co-location site in a public school building . . . or (B) offer the charter school space in a privately owned or other publicly owned facility at the expense of the City School District and a no cost to the charter school. The space must be reasonable, appropriate, and comparable and in the community school district to be served by the charter school and otherwise in reasonable proximity."
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[Have an op-ed submission? Send it to Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.]

 

The Next 100 Days


new york school

(schools.nyc.gov)


To be fair, as much as pundits and talking heads like to focus on an elected official's "first 100 days" in office, 100 days is not a very long time. Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña can't be expected to have fully eradicated poverty in New York City or turned around every failing school in such a short timeframe. But we can expect them to offer a vision for improving public education, along with concrete ideas about how to make schools tangibly better for students.

In place of specifics, the mayor and chancellor gave speeches to mark their first 100 days that were heavy on rhetoric and light on substance. The mayor parroted UFT talking points – inaccurately at that – and exaggerated a teacher retention crisis to lay the groundwork for large teacher raises. The chancellor, in a 17-page speech, offered not a single solution to improve struggling schools. In place of specifics, she offered vague references to increasing joy and collaboration. To be clear, we are also pro-joy and collaboration, but we need real solutions to the real challenges facing our schools.

With the first 100 days behind us, it's time to look forward. What can the mayor and chancellor do over the next 100 days and 100 weeks to ensure that every child in New York City has access to a high quality public education?

Over the next 100 days, the de Blasio administration will engage in a process that will have a direct and profound impact on the course of New York City schools for years to come. The City and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) will hammer out the details of a new teachers contract that will serve as a blueprint for how the mayor plans to shape public education. The mayor should use this opportunity to focus on retaining and rewarding great teachers and getting rid of ineffective teachers.

StudentsFirstNY understands that a great education starts with great teachers. That's why we support higher pay for teachers and we encourage the administration to negotiate a contract that treats teachers like the professionals they are. In order to retain the best, the City should increase pay for highly effective early career teachers. Paying good teachers more money will help attract more talented candidates to the profession and encourage those currently in classrooms to continue their careers in New York City public schools. We can pay for this increase by eliminating incentives that have nothing to do with effectiveness – like salary increases for extra courses that don't impact teaching quality.

While we're investing in effective teachers, we should make sure that ineffective teachers show tangible improvements or leave the system. The City currently pays approximately 1,200 teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool $144 million per year not to teach full time. Many of these ineffective teachers have disciplinary records and few actively look for new positions. We should stop paying these people not to teach, but rather than force them back into classrooms – as the UFT is pushing to do – we should set a time limit for the ATR pool. If an ineffective teacher goes an entire year without finding placement in one of the thousands of open positions, it's time for that person to move on to a new profession.

Based on their rhetoric over the first 100 days, it seems like the mayor and chancellor believe that our school system's chronic problems can be solved by more collegiality and less academic rigor. This comes up woefully short of what it will take to make schools better for the hundreds of thousands of struggling students this system is failing each year.

We hope that the next 100 days will bring more specific plans of action, and we strongly encourage the mayor and chancellor to focus their efforts on a new teachers contract that values outstanding teachers, protects our kids from ineffective ones, and provides city students with the high-quality instruction they need to be successful in school and beyond.

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Jenny Sedlis is the Executive Director of StudentsFirstNY

 

Park Equity Begins with a Better Public Budget


park volunteers

(NY4P.org)


An early springtime sun was shining down on Seward Park as Mayor de Blasio introduced Mitchell Silver as New York City's next parks commissioner last month on the Lower East Side. It was an inspiring day for park advocates across the city, as both the mayor and incoming commissioner offered thoughtful, even-handed commentary centered on a clear goal: a fairer park system for all New Yorkers.

Now, with budget season upon us, we're pleased to see that the mayor's preliminary budget for parks not only baselines many of the important restorations made over the past few years, such as street-tree care and stump removal, but funds items up front that are usually subject to the annual budget dance, such as Playground Associates and seasonal workers to staff pools, among other facilities.

This good news gives the parks community the opportunity to turn its attention to the larger issue of addressing inequities across the park system – including at a city council hearing next Wednesday, April 23rd. The solution is complex and nuanced. While many of the large park conservancies are ready to work with the commissioner on bringing more private resources – financial and otherwise – to parks in need, it's clear, as council parks and recreation committee chair Mark Levine noted recently in the Huffington Post, that addressing inequities must begin with the public budget. There are several specific budget and policy reforms that the administration and its Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) can undertake in the name of equity and fairness.

Expense budget
On the expense side, fostering greater equity will require addressing the top concern of many local park advocates across the city: there simply isn't enough full-time staff assigned to the parks that need them most. Rather, 75 percent of DPR's maintenance staff is made up of Job Training Participants (JTP) who work at DPR up to six months but are almost never given an opportunity for permanent employment once their training is complete. "Almost as soon as they're really up to speed on the park, they cycle out," a local advocate told us recently. Her comment rings true across the city.

At the same time, many advocates tell us that having full-time staff – a familiar face in the park – goes a long way toward improving the overall park experience for users. These issues offer Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Silver an opportunity to both address park equity issues and create good entry-level jobs.

What would those jobs be, where would they make the most immediate impact, and how much money is needed to create them? A good place to start would be to create a neighborhood parks fund of $10 million, which would allow Commissioner Silver to work with the Council on a plan that really starts to address needs in underserved parks. Here are a few ways such a fund could be spent in high-need areas:

  • $4 million for 100 full-time workers to staff playgrounds with comfort stations.
  • $3 million for 50 skilled full-time gardeners to help maintain midsized neighborhood parks.

Our organization learned first-hand how important these positions are when we helped lead the Neighborhood Parks Initiative almost 10 years ago.

Not only would these new positions start making a difference for parks most in need right away, but they'd offer an opportunity for DPR's part-time workers to gain full-time employment through a new, robust training program to help transition JTP staff into full-time maintenance workers and gardeners.

  • $3 million for park-tree pruning and stump removal. Though DPR has shortened its street-tree pruning cycle thanks to recent budget restorations, it still prunes very few park trees.
  • $2 million would allow DPR to prune at least about 25,000 trees in parks: a good start toward a pruning cycle.
  • An additional million dollars would allow DPR to remove approximately 4,000 more stumps.

Capital budget
There is also an opportunity to address park inequities through the capital budget. In recent years, the Department of Parks and Recreation has not had a meaningful discretionary budget to really enable it to plan for and fund capital projects over time across parks citywide. Rather, DPR has been reliant for funding for the majority of its projects on piecemeal discretionary allocations from city council members and borough presidents. Cobbling together allocations over multiple fiscal years from different elected officials is inefficient, leads to inequitable results, and often means the nuts-and-bolts needs of parks across the city fall through the cracks.

We are pleased to see that our call for increased discretionary capital funding, as highlighted in our Parks Platform 2013, seems to have been heard: the initial fiscal year 2015 budget contains a significant amount of capital funding for parks, and it appears to be at the discretion of Commissioner Silver. We call on the Council and administration to ensure that this funding remains in the final budget. At the same time, our recent research on improving the timeliness of capital construction shows that funding should be added to the budget for additional full-time positions in the capital division.

The introduction of Mitchell Silver, an urban planner, ushered in a new era not only for New York City's parks, but for its neighborhoods. After all, parks lie at the heart of city neighborhood life, in every corner of each borough – infrastructure as essential as housing, sewer lines and roads. The community building impact these spaces have extends far beyond their boundaries. Park issues are neighborhood issues.

As Commissioner Silver takes office, we're hopeful the administration and Council will supply him with the budgetary tools needed to really address inequity – and, in turn, lift the park system as a whole.

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Tupper Thomas is the Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks, an independent research and advocacy organization.

 



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