When Karina Costantino, the longtime superintendent of District 20 (D20) in Southern Brooklyn, retired late last summer, the search for her replacement was imminent. However, Alan Aja, the IEP representative on the district’s Community Education Council (CEC), noticed he was not invited to any interviews or any kind of meetings with the candidates for the next superintendent, contrary to what he had expected.
“I found out two CEC meetings ago, during an executive meeting,” Aja tells Bklyner about the search. “During that same meeting, I awkwardly asked the acting superintendent [Joe O’Brien, who is also a candidate] an update on search and went on the record saying that some of us were not invited. I did that on purpose so that parents on the Zoom meeting knew it wasn’t a transparent process.”
Aja had been hoping to ask the candidates about the high IEP non-compliance rate in the D20, which is among the highest in the city at 34%, and ask those candidates if they had any plans to meet those needs. Upon learning he was not invited to meet with those candidates, he was disappointed.
He is not alone. Nearly every CEC20 member Bklyner reached out to expressed disappointment over how the process of finding a new superintendent was conducted by the Department of Education (DOE), citing lack of transparency and questioning the ethics involved. Even Stephen Stowe, the CEC20 President, mentioned the wide range of disappointment in the Council via an emailed statement.
“The search has taken over 4 months thus far and there has not been a publicly announced timeline for completion of the process,” he writes. “This has created significant uncertainty for the District 20 education community, including the CEC. We reject the tired argument that the pandemic justifies indeterminate scheduling of important tasks.”
Stowe also refers to Chancellor’s Regulation C-37, which explains how a community superintendent is to be chosen, the requirements one must have to be eligible, and how the process is to be conducted. It says a designee will review the applications and interview the candidates.
On page 4 of the document, under “Consultation With Parents and Staff,” it explains the role the CEC is meant to play in the search: “Following completion of candidate interviews, the Chancellor’s designee will determine the proposed final candidate or candidates for community superintendent and will ensure that consultation occurs with the district’s Community Education Council and Presidents’ Council, as well as a representative of the UFT, a representative of the CSA, and a representative of DC 37. Such consultation shall include a meeting at which the councils and employee representatives listed above have the opportunity to meet and talk to the proposed final candidate(s) and to provide feedback to the Chancellor’s designee. The Chancellor’s designee shall consider such feedback prior to recommending a candidate for community superintendent to the Chancellor.”
But as Aja, Stowe, and another CEC member, Vito LaBella, have said, only a few members were handpicked to meet with the candidates.
“I heard that there were interviews,” LaBella says. “I don’t know how they chose which parents. I’m both on the President’s Council and the CEC; I know I wasn’t asked. I don’t really know who was asked, or what criteria they used, or why they picked certain parents.”
Given that the C-37 document does not specifically say “a few” or “the entire” Community Education Council and President’s Council, LaBella believes it is a point of contention.
“I believe that the gold standard would be any interview process take place with the entire CEC and the entire President’s Council,” he says.
David Bloomfield, a professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College, says the language of the Regulation refers to the entirety of CEC, and it appears that a violation has occurred.
“If the full committee and other entities mentioned in the regulation weren’t appropriately consulted,” he says, “I think it’s illegal. In theory, in law, the DOE decides, but then they have to put Mr. or Ms. X in front of the CEC itself. The regulation is written to be a dog-and-pony show. They can check the box, and do what they want. Many school districts engage in public searches. There’s no reason for this search can’t be as well.”
Aja agrees. “David’s absolutely right on this. If some of my colleagues were handpicked, that’s problematic.”
He adds that D20 parents should have had a chance to give their input on the candidates. Aja believes parents whose children have IEPs should have assessed the candidates’ experiences and whether the next superintendent would fight for the needs of students with IEPs, something many felt Costantino did not do enough of while she was superintendent.
But Aja, LaBella, Stowe, and even Bloomfield, point to mayoral control of the schools as the bigger problem in this case. Aja calls the control “autocratic,” and both Stowe and LaBella seem dismayed over how the DOE does not include enough parental input.
“I understand the final choice is from the Chancellor,” LaBella says. “But the DOE often talks about parent collaboration, and parent collaboration should be more than just this dog-and-pony show. They’re going to try to adhere to the bare minimum of the letter of the regulation rather than the spirit of the regulation.”
There are other issues regarding the search for D20’s new superintendent. One of the CEC members who was chosen to meet with the candidates, Yifang Chen, says she was disturbed that none of the candidates were Asian-American, despite the student body being 44% Asian.
“When I asked the District office why an Asian candidate was not represented in the final pool,” she says, “I was informed that not one candidate of Asian heritage applied for the position. In my mind, such an answer betrays the lack of commitment the DOE has to recognizing Asian Americans as warranting fair representation. Had diversity and equity truly been valued, in my mind, a more concerted effort to identify a more diverse candidate pool would have been made.”
When Bklyner asked parents in D20 about their thoughts on the search for the new superintendent, some said they didn’t know there was a search. A couple of those who were willing to give their thoughts did not seem to be surprised by the lack of transparency.
“I’m kind of used to it at this point,” says Bay Ridge resident Christina Powers, who has two boys in D20 schools. “It’s not surprising. But parents should be more aware of what’s going on.”
“They probably should’ve let us know,” says a D20 parent who gave her name as Jane. “Because they’re making decisions about my children. But the DOE does a lot in a way so we don’t voice our opinion.”
According to Stowe, a conversation with the DOE on December 21st implied that an announcement would be forthcoming. While no specific date or timeline was given, the words “a couple of weeks” was used. But DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer says the process is still ongoing.
“Hiring a new superintendent is an incredibly important responsibility,” Styer says. “And gathering input from parent leaders in the community is a critical part of the selection process. We follow state law and Chancellor’s Regulations when soliciting and incorporating the feedback of the CEC and other stakeholders on the final candidate or candidates. To be clear – no final candidate or candidates have been selected.”
The state laws that Styer refers to are Education laws 2590-e, 2590-h, and 2590-j, all of which seemingly repeat what the Regulation says. Laws 2590-e and 2590-h also say that selecting a new superintendent includes “Establish[ing], subject to the approval of the city board, a publicly-inclusive process for the recruitment, screening and selection of district superintendent candidates.”
“As a final candidate or candidates have not been chosen,” Styer adds. “It would be premature to solicit consultation from the full committee. It would be wrong to describe this as “illegal” as the process has not even entered the phase of consulting with CEC and other stakeholders.”
Even so, Stowe says the CEC stands ready “to work constructively and in good faith” with the person who will be chosen to be the next superintendent of District 20.