Thursday, April 30, 2020

Last night's PEP meeting cancelled, bus contract approval further delayed, provoking many unanswered questions

As the Daily News reported this morning,  because of the inability or unwillingness of DOE to put the busing contract extensions for March and April up to a vote of the Panel for Educational Policy last night, all 16,000 bus drivers have now been furloughed.  The meeting, which had already been postponed from last week , ended shortly after it began because of problems with the DOE online platform. More on this below.  

Yesterday was a crazy day, even crazier than usual during these crazy times, due to technology gone astray. In the morning,  I was using a new app to broadcast my "Talk out of School" WBAI weekly radio show from home, connected via my iPhone to the sound engineer Michael Haskins, who is broadcasting the show from his home during the pandemic.

There were some unexpected gaps on the air before the show started and for a few minutes into the beginning of the show. Nevertheless, when the show did begin, my guests were great, including advocate Matt Gonzales, co-author of this letter about what a fully empathetic grading system should be like, and his explanation and critique of the DOE system that will be used.  Then I spoke to parent leader Naomi Pena about the myriad challenges families are facing during these difficult times with remote learning.

Luckily, my assistant Peter managed to edit the sound file to eliminate the gap at the beginning and to upload it to Simplecast; you can listen to the show here.

Then I drafted some brief comments to make at the Panel for Educational Policy meeting that was due to start that evening at 6 PM, to be conducted online via an platform called Adobe connect.  The PEP meeting had already been postponed from the week before, presumably because of the controversy over the cost of the busing contracts  -- a huge unnecessary expense especially at this time of fiscal crisis, as no buses have operated since schools were shut down in mid-March.

I was going to call on the Panel members to vote against renewing these contracts, which were to be retroactively approved for the month of March at $200 million, and another $200 million for April.  If these contracts were cancelled through the end of the year, that could save the DOE as much as $700 million.  I also urged them to consider voting against some of the other unnecessary contracts on the agenda as well:

Wasting funds that should go to educating children should never happen, but especially at a time like this, when the city is facing a fiscal cliff and the Mayor has proposed $827 million in cuts to education, with at least $240 million directly to school budgets next year. 

I strongly urge you to consider cancelling the bus contracts which amount to $700 million in unnecessary expenses since schools are closed and they are not being used.  As the NYC Comptroller pointed out, there is a clause in these contracts called Force Majeure, which means that either party can pull out without consequences if extraordinary events occur such as epidemics.

 If this was done, it would prevent the need for most all the cuts that have been proposed for next year. 

In addition, you should scrutinize carefully before you approve the contracts for professional development that’s not happening this year, the nurses we will need next year but not this one, and the consultant contracts which honestly seem like frills we cannot afford. 

If you do give a blank check to DOE, I hope you realize that you are making it more likely that next year, children will face even larger classes and the loss of counselors, social workers and other essential services that they will need more than ever before. 

Then at about 3:30 PM, I got a call from a Panel member who told me they had just received an email from DOE,  saying the vote on the busing contracts would be further postponed, and that the they were still in "conversations" with the bus companies.  This was subsequently confirmed by another Panel member.
I still intended to listen to the meeting and speak out against these and other unnecessary contracts, and logged into the Adobe Connect portal at 5:30 PM, where I had to fill out an online form with   my name, affiliation, email, and whether I request to speak, and if so, on what agenda item. 
I was pushed off the platform several times, kept logging in, switched browsers to Chrome, then tried to log-in via my iPad.  Once I gained entrance to the meeting, there was a note online that if someone wanted to provide a comment they should download the "audio setup wizard" which was nowhere to be seen. 
The sound was inconsistent and scratchy, and as more and more people joined the meeting, problems multiplied exponentially.  DOE officials and panel members were speaking over each other or couldn't be heard at all.    
Each time I got pushed out of the meeting, I had to log in again with all my information - name, email, affiliation etc. [Should disclosing all this private information be required to observe an Open Meeting for a governmental body?] Every time I had to log in, it would take longer each time.

Meanwhile,  comments were flying back and forth on Twitter for those of us hoping to listen and to speak on the various controversial issues to be considered, including the contracts, the huge proposed budget cuts to schools, the newly announced DOE grading system, and more.   Here are some:

I subsequently heard via a reputable source that the DOE had moved off from Zoom to Adobe Connect for their PEP meetings, and had told people that the new platform was more reliable and "white glove," and thus also pricier.  How much they are paying for this deficient program is unknown.  Perhaps an enterprising reporter can find out!

I have many other, far more important questions which still need to be answered:

1- Are the busing contracts still under discussion, or has the DOE now decided not to extend them through the end of the year?

2- If the decision has been made to cancel these contracts, how many millions will be saved?  Is the total amount  $700 million, which is what the savings should be, given that the contracts cost $200 million per month and all busing ceased in mid-March?  Or since the contract to be voted upon last night was retroactive for March and April, does that mean the DOE already pay out $400 million -- even though the emergency extension had not yet been approved by the PEP?  (The NYC Comptroller has been very vocal in opposition to all these retroactive contracts; with 93.6% of DOE contracts submitted retroactively last year - the worst of any agency. Clearly this is not what the State Legislature envisioned when they gave the PEP to authority to approve or disapprove DOE contracts.)

3- Since none of the savings from cancelling the busing contracts were reflected in the Mayor's Executive Budget released two weeks ago, if the decision to cancel them is final, does this mean that the DOE's proposed budget cuts of about $240 million directly to schools can now be reversed?

4-If there is money left over, will the Mayor and Chancellor consider spending additional funds on reducing class size from these savings, as the UFT President Michael Mulgrew and others have pointed out will be necessary to maintain social distancing in classrooms next year, as well as provide the academic support necessary to make up for all the learning lost during the shutdown of schools?

I hope we get some of the answers to these questions soon.  Families and city taxpayers deserve to know.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"Talk out of School" with Naomi Peña and Matt Gonzales

Check out our latest "Talk out of School" podcast with advocate Matt Gonzales and parent leader Naomi Peña, President of Community Education Council District 1.  We discussed many of the challenges confronting families facing with remote learning, the pandemic and the just-announced DOE announced grading policy.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Parents, teachers, students, advocates and elected officials urge the Mayor, "Cut the Contracts, Save Our Schools"

Cut the Contracts Save Our Schools Press Conference April 27, 2020 from Community Education Council, D3 on Vimeo.

Here is a recording of the press conference. Newsclips are featured in the NY Post and in Bklyner

Please sign up to speak against these wasteful contracts at the Panel for Educational Policy meeting that will begin at 6 PM on Wed. April 29 clicking here ; speakers will be allowed to sign on from 5:30 PM until 6:15 PM. 

For immediate release: April 27, 2020

Contact: Leonie Haimson:; 917-435-9329
Kim Watkins:; (917) 689-3065

Parents, teachers, students, advocates and elected officials urge the Mayor, "Cut the Contracts, Save Our Schools"

They urge the DOE to save millions on unnecessary contracts and bureaucracy
rather than essential school staffing and services 

On Monday afternoon, in an emergency press conference broadcast on Zoom, parent leaders, teachers, students, elected officials and education advocates denounced the Mayor’s proposed education budget cuts of over $800 million, and proposed that cuts be made instead to unnecessary  contracts, consultants, the bureaucracy and a freeze on staffing at the NYC Police Department. Among the speakers emphasizing the need to protect students and schools from these unethical cuts were Tom Sheppard of CEC 11, Maria Abacar, a student member of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, Council Member Helen Rosenthal, Tanesha Grant of Parents Supporting Parents and CEJ, Tajh Sutton of CEC14, as well as those quoted below. 
“Our students were short-changed before the pandemic, with large class sizes, too few social workers and guidance counselors, and too few permanent school nurses. Our students will never get back the instructional time they have missed during the pandemic. They will never get back the missed milestones, like graduations, field trips, and proms. They will never get back lost family members, friends, principals, educators, paraprofessionals, counselors, cafeteria workers, and other loved ones. We cannot impose more pain and loss on them by cutting direct services, unless we have turned over every stone to find other areas to cut," said Council Member Mark Treyger, Chair of the Committee on Education
Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, said: “The Mayor wants to make egregious cuts to schools instead of eliminating wasteful contracts of over $700 million for busing we’re not using, professional development that’s not happening, and consultants who are doing who knows what. The proposed DOE budget would spend $300 million on the mid-level bureaucracy, nearly twice as much as in 2014.   Savings on contracts and bureaucrats now could prevent the need for any cuts to school budgets next year.  What the DOE really should be talking about instead is how they will strengthen schools and reconfigure classrooms next fall, as many countries and the state of California are doing, to provide the smaller classes required for social distancing and the academic and emotional support needed to make up for the profound losses students suffered this year.” 
As Council Member Brad Lander pointed out, “New York is facing a huge revenue shortfall and there will be hard choices, but cuts should not fall disproportionately on our children's education. The Department of Education represents 20% of the City's budget, and under the Mayor's proposed cuts for next year, are facing 22% of the cuts. Meanwhile, the NYPD, which represents 7% of the budget, is only absorbing 1%. If we must freeze hires and not replace retiring teachers, counselors, and social workers, then we should do the same at the NYPD. This crisis and its changes to education are going to hit harder on lower-income students, English language learners, those with special needs. As we move forward, we must make the choice to prioritize additional support to help those students make up for what’s being lost, and find savings elsewhere to make up the gap."
Shino Tanikawa, a member of the Fair Student Task Force and co-chair of the Education Council Consortium,  said: “There should be absolutely no cuts to the Fair Student Funding. With the pandemic and the remote learning, our students will need MORE resources, not less.  Many students are currently not receiving adequate instruction through remote learning and will require a lot of additional support next school year.  Furthermore all students will require a great deal of social emotional support in the coming months and well into the next school year.  We must refocus our priority on education and wellbeing of the most vulnerable students.”  

“Allocating funds to schools for teaching and support for families must be our top priority. CEC3's advocacy on budget issues includes the need for greater transparency, higher priority to hire full-time school nurses next school year as opposed to this year, and staff other essential positions, by scrutinizing every dollar expended by DOE for administration and contracts. Our council fully supports the effort to make budget cuts this year  to ensure that our schools are able to serve our students and families when they reopen next year,” said Kim Watkins, President of the Community Education Council in District 3.

Liat Olenick, an elementary school teacher, MORE-UFT member and Indivisible Nation BK co-president said: “Our children should come first. The Governor and the Mayor’s proposed cuts to public schools during a moment of profound collective loss and trauma are both unjust and unnecessary. The Governor should reverse his proposed statewide cuts to public education and instead levy moderate taxes on New York’s ultra-wealthy, and the Mayor should cut extraneous DOE contracts, and freeze funding for the NYPD instead of slashing fair student funding and hiring.” 

“As  a parent of a high school student, I understand first -hand the importance of summer activities for my children.  It’s unconscionable that the Mayor wants to cut $49 million to the summer youth employment program. Without these programs, kids like mine won’t be able to gain skills, experiences, and real wages. These programs are a much needed lifeline for parents like me.  I'm proud to stand with my fellow parents to urge the Mayor to  cut contracts and save summer programs for children like mine,” said Naila Rosario, President of NYC Kids PAC.
Kaliris Salas Ramirez of CEC 4 and NYC Opt out said, “These budget cuts imposed by Cuomo and DeBlasio are downright abusive to our school communities.  Schools in East Harlem are owed millions of dollars that could finance full arts programming, counselors and social workers that can support our students in their transition back to school; now that will be impossible. We need to divest from these corporations, including testing companies, that just continue to create metrics that marginalize our most vulnerable students to invest in our schools and protect our students.”   
Maria Bautista of the Alliance for Quality Education concluded, "Mayor de Blasio's proposed cuts to education are unconscionable and disastrous. The mayor was quoted saying ‘Next school year will have to be the greatest academic school year the city will ever have because everyone is going to be playing catch up,’  yet we know with this budget students will come back to less resources, academic supports,  larger class sizes and limited social and emotional supports. NYC must avoid making any cuts to our schools. We demand they take a look at wasteful contracts, make equitable changes to the Fair Student Funding formula  and divest from other city agencies, like the NYPD. NYC students will be harmed if this immoral budget passes."