Parents And Educators Brace For Exodus From The Department of Education

Parents And Educators Brace For Exodus From The Department of Education
Mayor Bill de Blasio at City Hall. Tuesday, February 2, 2021. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

When Bay Ridge resident Paullette Ha Healy learned that Paul Forbes, the Department of Education’s (DOE) executive director of Educational Equity, Anti-Bias, and Diversity, was leaving his position, she was not surprised. Forbes had been the latest staff member at the DOE to resign, following in the footsteps of other high-ranking officials who have left Tweed Courthouse, where the Department of Education is located, since this past summer. For Healy, Forbes is just another official leaving a sinking ship.

“It’s no surprise,” says Healy, who is a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education and also the parent advocacy group, PRESS NYC. “It’s no wonder we’re getting all these executives jumping ship. Either they no longer want to be complicit in this charade that is our public school system, or they already see the writing on the wall.”

April, an art teacher at a Brooklyn middle school, agrees. “I think most teachers find it pretty obvious that these staffers don’t want to be stuck on a sinking ship,” she tells Bklyner. “The DOE’s problems are deep-seated and longstanding, from lack of transparency to a disregard for students and educators of color despite constant lip service to “equity.” If I were central DOE staff, I would be looking for the door, too!”

The timing of this could not be worse, as while the next Mayor will not take over until January 2022, the Democratic primary that will determine who the next mayor of New York City will be is in June, and its outcome could further inspire officials in the DOE to leave their positions. The front-runners in the mayoral election are all on the record saying they would replace Schools Chancellor Carranza if they were to win the election, including Andrew Yang, Maya Wiley, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Brooklyn’s Borough President Eric Adams.

“Political appointees will be leaving, there will be the usual retirements,” says David Bloomfield, the Professor of Educational Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College, who took part in a video forum sponsored by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, where those candidates all said they would change chancellors. “There will be some staff turmoil during the fall and winter.”

Bloomfield points out that another reason for the staff at the DOE to leave is because of opportunities elsewhere in the education sector. With newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden still hiring for his Department of Education, there will be plenty of movement in this sector. This could lead to what Bloomfield says will be a domino effect.

“There will be new places to go, a lot of reasons to leave,” he says. “School districts will be hiring, nonprofits in the Beltway will be hiring, they’ll be needing people to take [former employees] places. The DOE staff has New York City experience, smart and able people.”

Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan where the Schools Chancellor is located. Bklyner file photo.

The top officials who have left Tweed Courthouse include Chief Operating Officer Ursulina Ramirez, senior advisor Alison Hirsh, Queens Executive Superintendent Andre Spencer, the head of Human Resources, Tomas Hana, and Cheryl Watson-Harris, who left last June after being the First Deputy Chancellor.

Karin Goldmark, the Deputy Chancellor for School Planning and Development, temporarily left her position last September to volunteer for Biden’s presidential campaign but has since returned. While Spencer and Watson-Harris had their roles filled after they left, Ramirez’s is still technically empty. DOE Deputy Press Officer Danielle Filson says, “Her two deputies have stepped up to lead the work previously under her portfolio—Lauren Siciliano as Chief Administrative Operations Officer and Kevin Moran as Chief Schools Operations Officer.”

When asked who could be the next DOE official to leave, Bloomfield says Josh Wallack, the Deputy Chancellor, Early Childhood Education, and Student Enrollment, could leave next. Wallack was originally appointed by former Chancellor Carmen Farina after serving on the Mayor’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten Implementation Working group.

“He’s among that tier,” Bloomfield says, referring to Wallack being among the top officials within the DOE.

Healy speculates that Goldmark is close to leaving, citing her return as “a surprise.”

“I would think that some of the executive superintendents will be the next ones to kind of announce their departures,” she says, referring to the positions that were created by Chancellor Carranza shortly after he took office. “In terms of the higher higher-ups, I would be surprised if [Deputy Chancellor of School Climate and Wellness] LaShawn Robinson isn’t actively looking. I have a feeling [many of them] have been looking since the beginning of the year.”

As for Carranza himself, rumors were swirling last fall about the Chancellor resigning, that the DOE itself had to publicly deny the rumors. Bloomfield says he found it strange that the rumors got to the point of denial, although he does not believe the Chancellor was looking to leave last fall.

“But I put Carranza basically the same basket as other top-level appointees at the DOE,” he says. “‘Tis the season!”

With all these changes on the horizon, it is a wonder what effect this would have on the public school students and their teachers. Bloomfield says life will go on in the classrooms, but Annie Tan, who teaches special education in Sunset Park, is not convinced.

“A new mayor means a new initiative, a new curriculum to learn,” she says. “That takes up teacher’s time. It certainly will affect what the principals have to do, and have to implement. The next mayor may not push for certain initiatives, and the funding may be lessened with the economy being weaker.”

But one high school teacher from Southern Brooklyn, who asked to remain anonymous, believes when anyone does leave Tweed Courthouse, it is not noticed much by teachers and school staff members.

“DOE central employees are generally so far removed from the real lives of teachers and students that we often don’t notice who is or isn’t in these roles,” she says.

Tan agrees, explaining that while the Mayor and the Chancellor may push for such things as reopening the schools, it is the teachers and staff that have to figure it out.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza. City Hall. Wednesday, January 13, 2021. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

“It’s just totally the staff without leadership or guidance from the city,” she says. “We have to wonder, ‘how do we get the PPE? What about the ventilators?’”

Tan says many of the teachers and staff have been taking everything one day at a time, week by week. But the stress of the school reopenings, remote learning, teacher shortages, and other problems that have been arising this school year is taking a toll on New York’s public school teachers. A survey released by MORE-UFT earlier this month found that out of 1,143 teachers surveyed, 60.6% would “definitely resign, retire, or take leave if they could without serious financial loss.”

“People are burned out,” Tan says.

Perhaps the same could be said about those at Tweed Courthouse. It remains to be seen who will be next to leave, and how many actually will once this school year comes to an end in late June, which will come right after the Democratic primaries, and will more or less determine who the next Mayor of New York City will be. Then it will be six months before the new administration takes over.

It also could mean months of a major exodus from Tweed Courthouse.

“The DOE has strong leaders in place and we pride ourselves on the tremendous talent at every level of the agency. This is a natural time of transition and the important work of teaching and learning and keeping our students safe and healthy continues,” emailed Danielle Filson, DOE spokeswoman.

(This story has been updated with comment from DOE.)

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