Monday, November 14, 2016

What's the story on School Leadership Team meetings? A fact sheet for parents and members of the public

On October 25, 2016 the Appellate Court finally ruled on the lawsuit, originally filed in January 2015, by retired teacher Michael P. Thomas, Public Advocate Letitia James and Class Size Matters.  The Appellate Court unanimously ruled that School Leadership Team meetings must be open to the public. Here is our press release about this, and here are articles about the decision in the Daily News, the Village Voice and Chalkbeat. Here is a blog post with more background.

On November 10, the DOE informed principals via the Principal's Weekly that from now on, these meetings must be open to members of the public, and that parents and the public must be notified in advance of these meetings. Below is a fact sheet, explaining the composition and authority of School Leadership Teams, and what rights parents and members of the public have to attend these meetings.  You can also download the document as a pdf here.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

So what happened? And how we need to be ready for the fight to save our public schools

I've been hesitant about writing about the Presidential election for many reasons.  I am as shocked and appalled as many others, and have no special insights or expertise to explain what happened.  But one of the smartest guys I know, Tad Devine, a top adviser to Bernie Sanders, was on NPR and explained Trump's election this way: "most voters in the states that decided the election wanted change. He represented that change. She did not. And I think that was enough for him to win the election."

Clearly, many people, especially the Rust Belt voters who decided the election, wanted change desperately.  There was no way to argue that Hillary represents change.  The more that Obama tried to point to what a great job she did in his administration and her years of experience probably just underscored how she had been part of the system for 20 years or more. 

I remember that Bill Clinton’s convention speech was focused on the claim that Hillary represents change.  He was  smart to focus on that issue as he had correctly diagnosed the temperature of the electorate, but in the end his argument was unconvincing.

Does that mean Bernie Sanders would have won?  Who knows.  No matter how anti-establishment Sanders is, Trump could have argued that he’s been in Congress for 27 years.  On the other hand, Bernie beat Hillary in some of the primaries in the same states that went for Trump. Whether Trump will deliver the sort of change these voters yearn for or bring their factory jobs back seems unlikely, and how much damage he will do to marginalized groups of immigrants, Latinos, blacks and others in the process we will have to see.

The other reality is this: Because Hillary has been part of the system for so long, a lot of negative feelings and even hatred has accumulated towards her personally over the years.  This attitude is largely irrational and unfair, but it was not easy to dispel – especially when the email scandal erupted twice via FBI director Comey’s letters during the last two weeks of the campaign.   To witness just how intense the hatred is for Hillary among many women and men, you should watch this excellent CNN series with Van Jones interviewing Trump supporters in Gettysburg PA.  

The real tragedy is that Obama could have probably brought more real change into these communities if the GOP in Congress hadn’t blocked nearly everything he tried to do, whether it was increasing the minimum wage, infrastructure spending, tax reform etc.  The GOP in the House and the Senate had a highly partisan strategy to stand in the way of Obama accomplishing nearly anything since they took control -- including reforms that could have helped a lot of those people in the Rust belt  and throughout the country -- and their strategy won.

I also think we need to remember the stunning data that came out last year showing that for the first time in this nation’s history white death rates are increasing sharply – which seems to be the result of increased rates of addiction, alcoholism and suicide. Meanwhile, black and Latino mortality rates are falling significantly. I hope that some economists/political scientists analyze whether the addiction/mortality data correlate in specific communities with the Trump vote.

What’s also tragic is that if Obamacare is repealed or cut back this may cause mortality rates to grow – in most all communities and among all races.

I do want to point out some bright spots in the election results.   In Georgia and Massachusetts, multi-racial coalitions of unions, parents and school board members overwhelmingly defeated privatization efforts, proving that big money doesn’t always win.  Here is a must read by Jennifer Berkshire (Edushyster) about how this was accomplished in Massachusetts.

At the same time, the campaign by Bill Gates and other billionaires in the state of Washington to pack courts with pro-charter judges lost. 

We will need to replicate these grassroots campaigns throughout the country to keep our public schools safe and secure from being defunded and privatized by the Trump administration, Wall St. financiers and ed-tech interests.  At the same time, we'll have to form the same sort of coalitions to ensure that our public schools are sufficiently and equitably funded and provide all children with a real opportunity to learn.

In New York state, sadly, this didn't happen.  The state teachers union, NYSUT, gave most of their money to long-shot upstate candidates who lost.  Only 3 percent of the $3.9 million NYSUT spent was in support of candidates who won. Democratic challengers in the extremely close State Senate races on Long Island were left largely without state union funding and support -- according to the parents and rank and file teachers who worked hard as volunteers on these campaigns.  At the same time, millions in pro-charter PAC money was spent to defeat these same Long Island Democratic candidates, and to keep the State Senate in Republican hands, which paid for stealth attack ads that never mentioned the words "charter school" -- dirty words for most Long Island voters.

We will have a battle on our hands for sure to withstand the destructive impulses of a pro-privatization President, State Senate and Governor.  Public school parents, teachers, school boards, community activists and yes, unions, will need to band together, organize, be smart and ready for the fight.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A busy day: Protesting billionaires pushing charter schools & then winning our lawsuit vs the DOE on School Leadership Team meetings

Yesterday was quite a day.  In the morning, I protested with AQE and the Hedge Clippers folks, outside an event at the Harvard Club, where Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was speaking about the referendum to raise the cap on charter schools in his state called Question 2.

This effort has been funded with millions of dollars in "dark money," and we were there to make them feel uncomfortable.  Jeremiah Kittredge of Families for Excellent Schools walked into the building while we were chanting, "Governor Baker epic fail! Our public schools are not for sale!"  FES has poured at least $13.5 million into this election -- without disclosing its donors, although one can assume the money comes mostly from the usual suspects -- Walton family members and NYC hedge fund operators.

After the meeting, Baker was scheduled to meet with Bloomberg, trolling for even more bucks -- after Bloomberg had already given $240,000 to the effort.  Meanwhile, all over the country, from California to New York, Washington to Georgia, billionaires are trying to buy  school board races, judgeship elections, referendums, and control of the NY State Senate - all with the same nationwide goal of privatizing public schools, and wresting them from democratic control. 

Then I returned back to my office and learned that the Appellate Court had finally ruled on our lawsuit to keep School Leadership Team meetings open, which the DOE had closed to the public starting in 2013. To make a long story short, we won!  Here is our press release, and here are articles about the decision in the Daily News, the Village Voice and Chalkbeat.  

The backstory is this: In order to test DOE's determination to close these meetings, and to challenge a particularly weak decision by another judge who ruled for DOE in the Portelos case, retired teacher Michael P. Thomas asked to attend an SLT meeting at Portelos' former school, IS 49 on Staten Island, in March 2014.  After initially getting permission, the SLT Chair turned him down, and he was blocked when he tried to enter the building.  

He then sued the DOE on May 17, 2014, and Class Size Matters and Public Advocate Tish James intervened shortly thereafter to represent parents and the public's right to know.    Judge Peter Moulton ruled in our favor in a slam-dunk decision on April 2015, but the Chancellor Fariña told principals to ignore the decision and appealed it.  

The Appellate court heard arguments from both sides on January 21, 2016 -- and took nearly a year to rule.  But finally, in another slam-dunk, unanimous decision, they reaffirmed the lower Court ruling that SLT's are public bodies in state governance law, and thus their meetings must be open to the public. Much thanks goes to Michael Thomas, Tish James and the attorneys from NY Lawyers for Public Interest and Advocates for Justice who represented the Public Advocate and Class Size Matters in court.

Yet what has been particularly galling to me throughout has been the DOE's lame argument that they could close these meetings because SLT's, made up of half parents and half school staff, were purely "advisory" bodies.  This sort of dismissive -- and frankly illegal -- attitude towards parent participation in decision-making has continued over from the Bloomberg administration.

In 2007, when Chancellor Klein tried to strip the authority of School Leadership meetings by rewriting the Chancellor's regs, I helped Marie Pollicino, a parent SLT member from Queens, submit an appeal to State Commissioner Mills.  Mills also found in our favor, forcing Klein to rewrite the regs and recognize the authority of SLTs to write Comprehensive Education Plans for their schools and be consulted on a range of issues, including a school-based budget aligned with the CEP, as the law clearly requires. (A timeline of these events  is on Class Size Matters' website.) And yet now, despite Mayor de Blasio's promise that parents would finally be respected and their input taken seriously, it was happening all over again.  De Blasio also promised increased transparency as to education spending, but that pledge has been ignored as well.

Sadly, even now Chancellor Fariña and the DOE attorneys seem uncertain as to whether to concede after two, overwhelmingly decisive court opinions against their position. In the Daily News, a DOE spokesperson is quoted as saying, "The state Legislature never intended to mandate that SLT meetings be open to the general public.  We are considering our options.” Really?  If so, why does NY State Education law 2590-h say  that each school must "provide notice of monthly [SLT] meetings that is consistent with the open meetings law"?  

And why did the previous Chancellor, Dennis Walcott agree that these meetings were open to the public?  After a principal kicked a Riverdale Review reporter out of an SLT meeting in January 2013, the DOE spokesperson repudiated this action after consulting their legal department, saying that "Generally, these meetings are open to the public except if an executive session is being held."  A power point is still posted on the DOE website from the Walcott era, which states "SLT meetings are open to the public.  Teams may find that observers from within the school community or beyond wish to attend SLT meetings." 

Let's hope that DOE doesn't appeal the Court's ruling once again.  Meanwhile, please share this decision with other parents, community members and reporters -- and let them know that as of yesterday, they have a right to attend any School Leadership Team meeting they choose.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Victory at last! NY Appellate Court Affirms School Leadership Team Meetings are Open to the Public

Another big win for parents and the public interest!  After a long wait, the NY Appellate Court ruled that School Leadership Team meetings must be open to the public, and decisively countered the DOE claim that SLT's are only "advisory" bodies.  Check out our press release below and the Court's unanimous decision here.

For Immediate Release
Date: October 25, 2016
Contact: Leonie Haimson, 917-435-9329;

In a rebuke to the NYC Department of Education, which began closing School Leadership Team (SLT) meetings to the public in 2013, a New York appellate court has found that closing the meetings violates the state’s Open Meetings Law.  In a decision released today, the New York Appellate Division, First Department found for the petitioner, Michael P. Thomas, and the intervenors, Public Advocate Letitia James and Class Size Matters, that SLT meetings must be open to the public. 
Contrary to the DOE’s claims, the Court held that SLTs are governmental bodies that have decision-making authority under state law.  The SLT helps formulate "school-based educational policies" and ensure that "resources are aligned to implement those policies,” wrote the Court.  Thus, SLT meetings must be subject to the Open Meetings Law.  The Court rejected DOE’s contention that SLTs, composed half of school staff and half parents, have only advisory powers and thus their meetings could be closed.
On March 17, 2014, retired teacher Michael P. Thomas asked the Chair of the SLT and the Principal Linda Hill of IS 49 on Staten Island to attend their meeting.   The Chair invited him but later rescinded her invitation, and barred him from entering the meeting when he arrived at the school on April 1, 2014.  On May 17, 2014, Mr. Thomas commenced an article 78 proceeding, and the Public Advocate and Class Size Matters subsequently intervened on behalf of parents and the public at large, represented pro bono by Advocates for Justice and New York Lawyers for Public Interest.
On April 21, 2015,  Supreme Court Judge Peter Moulton ruled that "SLT meetings entail a public body performing governmental functions," and thus are "subject to the Open Meetings Law."  He concluded that “the proper functioning of public schools is a public concern, not a private concern limited to the families who attend a given public school."  Chancellor Carmen Farina instructed principals to ignore this decision, and filed a Notice of Appeal on May 22, 2015.  The Appellate Court heard arguments from both sides on January 21, 2016.
Upon learning today that he had won the case, Michael P. Thomas said, "It was a long wait, but well worthwhile to read the court’s decision. Opening SLT meetings will allow the public to observe first-hand the effects of problems plaguing our schools, including underfunding, overcrowding, and poor budgetary priorities.  The Court's affirming that SLTs are more than advisory in nature demonstrates that these bodies have real decision-making power. Unfortunately, in too many cases, principals have improperly usurped the power given to SLTs in state law. Hopefully, the Court's decision will be the first step in helping to resolve the many problems in our public schools."
“Today’s ruling is a victory for parents, students, educators and all of us who believe in transparency and accountability at the Department of Education,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “After years of having their voices drowned out in the school system, parents are being heard again. Important decisions about our schools must be made in sunlight with input from parents and teachers.”
 “We are delighted that the First Department confirmed in a unanimous opinion the public’s right to attend these very important School Leadership Team meetings,” said Laura D. Barbieri, of counsel to Advocates for Justice Legal Foundation, representing the Public Advocate Letitia James, and Class Size Matters. “The Department of Education must comply with the Open Meetings Law and can no longer exclude the media or concerned citizens who have a right to know what is going on in their neighborhood public schools.”
Said Rachel Spector, Director of the Environmental Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which represented Class Size Matters: “The court’s decision affirms that when public schools make decisions, they must be transparent: public schools cannot act in secret. We are pleased that members of the public can now attend School Leadership Team meetings without fear of being turned away at the door. This is an important step forward and serves as a reminder to the Department of Education that community participation is crucial to the success of New York City public schools."
 “The law is crystal clear that School Leadership Teams are public bodies, with an important governmental role to play.  Parents and the public have a crucial stake in SLT decisions, when it comes to class size, the use of technology, or any other school-based policies.  Both the Supreme Court and now the Appellate Court have ruled that these meetings must be open to the community at large.  Any attempt by the DOE or principals to ignore this decision, subvert it or appeal to a higher court would be unwise, would further delay the public interest and would waste precious taxpayer funds that are far better used in improving our schools,” concluded Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters.
The Appellate Court’s decision is posted here:
Additional background on School Leadership Teams, along with a timeline and links to legal briefs and news articles, is posted here: