NYC Principals Union: Mayor de Blasio, Chancellor Should Cede Control of Schools

The principals union is not seen as particularly vocal or politically antagonizing, making Sunday’s statement even more striking.

Sidewalk marked at 6 feet outside PS249 in Brooklyn in September 2020. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

By Christina Veiga and Reema Amin, Chalkbeat New York

In a stunning statement, leaders of the union representing New York City principals called Sunday for Mayor Bill de Blasio to cede control of the nation’s largest school district for the remainder of the pandemic, following a chaotic summer of planning to reopen.

The union’s executive board cast a unanimous vote of no confidence in the mayor and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, and is asking both leaders to seek intervention from the state education department. Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said the move was prompted by a series of missteps and a lack of transparency on policy changes from city officials.

Union leaders also leveled sharp accusations against city leaders — including that principals were pressured to underreport how many additional teachers they needed as the city faces a massive staffing crunch.

There were no indications Sunday that school buildings would not reopen as planned Tuesday for K-5 and K-8 schools — though on Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not completely rule out the possibility of a delay, while also saying he felt “very good” about planning efforts. Cannizzaro told reporters that principals and teachers still plan to report to buildings, and he’s not confident the state education department will step in.

“The frustration and the difficulty is immense,” Cannizzaro told reporters. “We are still 100% supportive of trying to open our schools in the best possible way we can.”

The state education department is aware of the union’s pleas and is “monitoring NYC’s reopening,” a spokesperson said, who declined to say more.

The public rebuke came two days after city officials and the teachers union hashed out yet another agreement over how schools could staff classes. The last-minute deal potentially sends principals back to the drawing board to recreate schedules, even as the school year is already underway.

The agreement allows teachers with family members at risk for complications from the coronavirus to work from home if their schools need to fill more positions instructing remote students. It also attempts to solve a severe staffing issue compounded by a previous agreement with the teachers union as New York City has begun reopening school buildings under a hybrid model — a mix of in-person and virtual classes.

Students in pre-K and those with complex disabilities have already returned to classrooms. Meanwhile, about half of all city students opted to learn from home full time.

The union called the staffing agreements negotiated with teachers “grossly irresponsible” and contends that its leaders were not informed of the latest deal, with many principals learning of the agreement late Friday from their teachers.

That agreement appeared to be the last straw for the administrators union. Sunday’s vote of no confidence was based on a summer of decisions that city leaders took as they planned to reopen buildings for students part time, a step that no other large school district has attempted.

The United Federation of Teachers released a statement on Sunday pointing out that their union has also sounded the alarm about the need for more help in the classroom, but defended its agreement with the city as “designed to staff the schools in a safe manner.”

City leaders have still failed to fill all the positions needed, the principals union contended in a resolution about the vote. As of Friday, 200 elementary school principals still needed more than 1,200 teachers for when their buildings open this week, according to the union. The city has promised to deploy 4,500 additional teachers into school buildings ahead of reopening this week, but the union now estimates that 12,000 more staff members are needed.

“I’m not confident right now that everyone has the teachers they need,” Cannizzaro said.

But Cannizzaro also tried to walk a fine line between blasting city leaders and trying to win the confidence of families. He said no principal would reopen their school’s doors if it wasn’t safe to return; rather, principals have received “too much conflicting guidance.”

“Parents should be confident that any child that arrives at a building will be given the utmost care,” he said.

The resolution also laid out several accusations against the education department and City Hall.

The union contends that district superintendents had pressured principals to say they have enough staff after they’d requested more; that many custodians still did not have the supplies and equipment they needed to clean and sanitize buildings; and, that the city’s “Situation Room,” tasked with quickly confirming coronavirus cases in schools and tracking close contacts, has “inordinate wait times, erroneous guidance, and contradictory directives.”

The education department and City Hall declined to comment on any of the assertions.

“For the past six months, we’ve worked with our labor partners to navigate completely uncharted waters and accomplish our shared goal of serving students this fall,” wrote Miranda Barbot, a spokesperson for the education department, in a statement.

“We’ll continue this work to guarantee a safe, healthy and successful opening for all. This week, more kids will be safely sitting in New York City classrooms than in any other major American city — a testament to city leadership and our educators’ commitment to their students, and the importance of in-person education.”

As the city continues to reopen its buildings, a state takeover seems unlikely, and it’s unclear that the oversight would be helpful. The state education department has failed for years to bring the city into compliance on violations in special education and instruction for students learning English as a new language.

The principals union is not seen as particularly vocal or politically antagonizing, making Sunday’s statement even more striking. It is also notable because the chancellor’s role in the reopening saga has flown under the radar as City Hall has largely been in control.

De Blasio is ultimately responsible for the education department and has been the main target for harsh criticism after suddenly delaying school reopenings — twice — and ignoring the public warnings of educators over several months that they were facing a severe staffing shortage.

There has been an exodus of top officials at City Hall in recent months, with some voicing frustration over the mayor’s management of the pandemic and defense of the police department during protests against racism. Recently, the departures have extended to Tweed, the education department’s downtown headquarters, with a handful of senior staffers in charge of reopening plans leaving in quick succession.

But discontent has obviously been brewing over Carranza’s leadership. On Friday, rumors that the chancellor would soon resign spread so widely that a spokesperson for the education department took the unusual step of publicly dispelling them in a tweet.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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