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:


Monday, October 17, 2016

Spending on bureaucracy climbs while Renewal schools continue to struggle with large class sizes

Through a Freedom of Information request and then a lawsuit, the NY Post finally received a list of DOE Renewal administrators and field staff who work out of Tweed and district offices.  According to the list, there are 71 of these individuals with a collective salary last year of $8.4 million.  See the attached spreadsheet and NY Post article here, in which I say that these schools are being buried in an avalanche of bureaucrats. 
Yet the DOE left off the list Renewal Superintendent Michael Alcoff,whose salary last year was $175,000, as well as the 39 Renewal “leadership coaches” and three “Ambassador APs” for Renewal schools, whose estimated salaries are at least $100,000 each.  When these educrats are added, the total cost of the Renewal bureaucracy is at least $12.7 million.

This contradicts a report released by the Independent Budget Office in May 2015, presumably based on DOE data, that said only $200,000 was projected to be spent in FY 16 and FY 17 for Renewal school “administrative field support.”  Quite a difference between $200,000 and $12.7 million.

Last year, Ernie Logan of the CSA, the Principal’s union, complained thatprincipals in the 94 schools were being overwhelmed with paperwork and meetings and micromanaged to the point that they could not do what they thought was best for their schools.  Yet what I think is most tragic is that so many of these schools are still struggling with large class sizes, despite repeated promises by the city to the state to reduce them.

Again, in their latest round of Contract for Excellence proposed plans, the DOE claims to be focusing its efforts on reducing class size in the Renewal schools, without any specific goals or commitments, just as they did last year.   Yet we found that last year, nearly 40 percent of the Renewal schools raised their average class size, and only seven percent capped class sizes at the nearly acceptable C4E levels of 20 students per class in grades K-3, 23 in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school.  As many as sixty percent of these schools still had classes as large as thirty.  This is simply unacceptable.  While millions are being spent on a phalanx of bureaucrats, micromanaging teachers who are struggling to help their students, students continue to struggle in classes this large.