BAY RIDGE – On Friday, it was revealed that Superintendent Karina Costantino of District 20 (D20) will be retiring, effective Monday, August 31st. The announcement was made during D20’s President’s Council general meeting via Zoom, which is a meeting of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) presidents. This news was made public after a few weeks worth of whispers going around the district.
“I heard a rumor that Ms. Costantino is retiring,” Council President Janine Faustner says early on in the meeting at 6:54. “Please tell me it’s not true.”
“It’s not a rumor,” William Chin, D20’s elementary and middle school family leadership coordinator for DOE confirmed. “Literally she stayed a year longer than she intended to.”
Chin explains that the Superintendent hoped to retire right after the opening of P.S./I.S. 746K on 59th Street, which was to be opened in September 2019 but has been delayed. Chin said Costantino does not want to wait any longer, and will instead attend the future ribbon-cutting as a guest.
“I think she would have liked to see the new arts school dedicated on 59th [street],” says Adele Doyle, the former president of the Community Education Council (CEC) 20, who resigned in early July, citing commitments to her doctorate degree. “But with the pandemic that was too up in the air. She had an amazing fifty year career. I’ll be sorry to see her go.”
“I would like to thank the Superintendent for her fifty plus years of service to the families of NYC and wish her well in her future endeavors,” says CEC member Vito LaBella via email.
There are many in D20 who appreciate Costantino’s long-time work for the district, which covers Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Sunset Park, and parts of the surrounding neighborhoods and sends a disproportionate number of students to the city’s specialized high schools.
There are also many who wish she had done much more for families in the area.
Costantino’s retirement comes at the heels of mounting criticism of her leadership, as well as a petition calling for her removal back in mid-June. The complaints included racism, low IEP compliance rates, and the debate over getting rid of screened school admissions. While these complaints have been around for a while, D20 parents recently told Bklyner that the pandemic intensified the complaints.
“There’s an underlying current of racism throughout this district because of the antiquated leadership of Superintendent Costantino,” says one parent, who asked to be called Tammy Brown. Earlier this month, Tammy told Bklyner that parents who ask Costantino too many questions about school budgets and fundraisings go on to be “treated as undesirables in our school community because we were vocal about a particular thing that didn’t align with Costantino’s vision or narrative.”
Many in D20 claim that while the demographics in the area have changed, the district operates as if it has not. “As the district gets more diverse, the faces don’t change,” says a father who called himself Jaime, referring to how the teachers and administrators are mainly white, unlike their students. According to 2018-2019 data from the New York State Education Department, 44% of D20’s students are of Asian descent, while 26.6% are Hispanic or Latino. 3% are Black, and 25.3% are White, although those of Arab background are put into this category.
“Parents are no longer willing to accept these systems that protect the privileges,” Jaime points out. “There’s a culture here that is not used to anyone questioning authority.”
According to a report by NYS Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, published in May 2019, D20 has a non-compliance rate of 34%, compared to the 24% average of the more compliant districts. For some parents, the release of that report sparked something, and led to an increase of complaints towards Superintendent Costantino, whom some say wasn’t concerned about their children’s needs. Some said she didn’t know how to service children who needed help due to being a multi-language learner or having a learning disability.
Parents also say intimidation and retaliation against those who demand services for their children with IEPs, or who need an IEP, is common, with even the ACS being used for retaliation. Some parents have grown so afraid of retaliation that they have other parents speak for them, according to Jaime.
These same parents also believe Costantino preferred to focus on the district’s Gifted and Talented programs, and especially on the middle schools that served as a pipeline for the city’s specialized high schools. IS 187 The Christa McAuliffe School is among the city’s top ten schools receiving offers to attend these schools, such as Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant.
When the idea of integrating D20’s schools, much like how D15 did, came to the district, it sparked an intense debate in D20. While many in the area are against integration, there are some who would like to see it happen there.
“Screening in public schools,” says CEC member Alan Aja in an emailed statement. “whether through competitive test-based admissions for middle and high schools, or through segregated curricula through racialized tracking within nominally integrated schools, exacerbates systemic and institutionalized racism, full stop. These insidious work-arounds of the monumental Brown v. Board of Education decision must come to an end.”
As for accusations of racism, some parents felt Costantino was apathetic to the needs of the children of D20, especially after the murder of George Floyd and with the Black Lives Matter movement started getting bigger.
In the petition that came out in mid-June, and signed by over 200 parents and residents, Costantino was accused of “an insulting response to racial violence and calls for justice” due to her delayed response to Floyd’s murder. The anger was also fueled by comments Vito LaBella, a retired NYPD lieutenant, made on his personal Facebook account, where he criticized Black Lives Matter. LaBella claimed the term “Black Lives Matter” was a “‘dog whistle’ to hurt cops” in a June 2nd post. He went on to say, it is “a sad state when saying “All Lives Matter,” is seen as somehow being anti Black” and added, “in a world where Ivy League lawyers are trying to kill cops, “Blue Lives Matter” is more relevant than ever.”
Parents and residents of D20 petitioned for LaBella to resign from the CEC, as well as Costantino to be removed for not reprimanding him.
“She’s been evasive about rolling out implicit bias training as required by the DOE”, the petition, obtained by Bklyner, claims. “[She h]as stymied work on the development of culturally responsive curricula, and has failed to respond to calls for greater diversity in hiring…It’s past time for her to go.”
Costantino addressed these accusations during a July 8th Annual and Calendar Meeting via Zoom, saying the criticism she received in recent weeks, “really hurt my feelings.”
“I am very much aware of the frustrations and anxieties that exist within our district that have escalated over the past six weeks,” she said. “To those who feel their voices are not being heard on either side of the aisle, I have never ignored parent concerns during my 14 years of tenure as superintendent. I’ve always maintained that you are the client, and the DOE are the providers.”
With that, Costantino announced the creation of an Equity Forum, which will lead to a standing committee, under her jurisdiction. But some D20 parents wondered if the forum was just for show and lacked ingenuity.
But with Costantino now retiring, and the search for D20’s new superintendent under way, many in D20 are looking forward. Some hope that who replaces Costantino will fix what was happening during her tenure.
“I believe it is imperative in order to rectify the long years of wrongdoing at the hands of this previous Superintendent,” says Tammy Brown. “We look outside District 20 for her replacement. We need a district leader willing to engage our community, do the work to address non compliance issues, be willing to recognize the challenges our Title 1 families face and stop the rampant culture of retaliation that has been allowed to fester in District 20.”
In the interim, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Joseph O’Brien will be taking over until a new superintendent for D20 is found. The process includes the Chancellor’s designee to review and interview possible candidates, before bringing the person, or persons, to the CEC or the President’s Council for their review. Representatives from the UFT, CSA, and DC 37 take part in the process. Any recommendations are given to the designee who then informs the Chancellor, and the new superintendent is hired.
Given how Chancellor Carranza’s education policies differ from what many parents in D20 want, particularly regarding integration and the SHSAT exam, the outcome for this search may be one to keep an eye on.