The day after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of three white female administrators accusing Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and some key aides of “unlawful race and gender discrimination and retaliation” that led to their being demoted and replaced by less-qualified people of color who had bought into his agenda, he responded to those charges with three words: “Absolutely not true.”
“We have truth on our side,” Mr. Carranza told the reporters who came to his May 29 press conference in The Bronx about summer-school meals to ask about a meatier subject: the claim that he and his emissaries were shunting aside Caucasian educators to rid the school system of an excess of “whiteness” in executive positions.
“Allegations can be made; it’s absolutely not true,” he said, as if the third time was the charm.
A reporter asked about one of the spiciest claims in the 45-page legal brief filed in Manhattan Supreme Court: that on June 27, 2018 he told a roomful of top Department of Education officials to “get on board with my equity platform or leave.”
‘Not the Place for You’
Mr. Carranza replied, “I did not say that, absolutely did not say that.” Rather, he continued, he had spoken of “our mission,” then told his subordinates, “And if your agenda is not to serve our students, if your agenda is an adult agenda and not a student agenda, then perhaps the Department of Education is not the right department for you to work in.”
The three plaintiffs in the suit, Lois Herrera, Jaye Murray and Laura Feijoo, allege that he did his best to convince them and other longtime educators that they were in the wrong place and should consider leaving. Their court papers accused the Chancellor of having “improperly conflated the daunting task of addressing tough socioeconomic challenges facing many of the students in the New York City public-school system with a discriminatory belief that Caucasians in the DOE workplace, particularly more-senior Caucasian women, are causing or exacerbating those challenges, even though Plaintiffs and other similarly situated DOE employees have led meaningful change for students attending all of New York City’s public school districts for decades…”
Ms. Herrera three months after Mr. Carranza’s “not the right department” speech was removed from her position as Chief Executive Officer of DOE’s Office of Safety and Youth Development. Prior to her demotion, she said one Carranza loyalist had asked her in both June and August when she planned to retire, and that LaShawn Robinson, whom the Chancellor had tapped to be Deputy Chancellor of School Climate and Wellness, in early August had told a group of senior executives, “If you’ve been with the DOE for more than 20 years, you are responsible for the problem,” by which, the suit stated, she meant “perceived racial inequities in the administration of DOE.”
Ms. Herrera claimed that shortly after Mr. Carranza’s arrival as Chancellor 14 months ago, Ms. Robinson had told white DOE executives they “had to take a step back and yield to colleagues of Color” and “recognize that values of White culture are supremacist.” She became known, Ms. Herrera charged, for pledging to “disrupt and dismantle” the work of white employees.
Within weeks of being removed from her supervisory position, Ms. Herrera said, she learned that the three highest-ranking white women in her division were being replaced “by African-Americans, who were each objectively less qualified for the roles even by the metrics DOE adopted to promote individuals within its ranks.”
Those announcements, the brief continued, were made during a DOE retreat that featured a video for professional development “that blamed the proliferation of predominantly Caucasian suburbs for creating poverty, lack of education and poor job attainment for African-Americans…which exacerbated the open hostility against Caucasian employees within the ranks of DOE.”
Ms. Herrera also alleged that during a professional-development workshop connected to last year’s elections, she was informed that “an African-American presenter stated that there were a set of ‘White middle class values’ that were plaguing society, sharing her message in terms of ‘Us vs. Them’ when referring to Caucasians, and another presenter crassly compared the suspension of African-America male students to the Holocaust.”
No Use for Westchester
Ms. Murray, who was also demoted last September, in her case from the post of Executive Director of the DOE Office of Counseling Support Programs, said that her only one-on-one meeting with Deputy Chancellor Robinson turned awkward when she was asked where she came from and cited a Westchester County suburb. “Robinson asked little else, including anything related to her ongoing projects and work streams, which signaled to Murray that Robinson was not interested in getting to know Murray or her work.”
That work, the brief continued, included “her leading role in developing the DOE’s ‘Unpacking Racism’ workshops, hiring the DOE’s first citywide LGBT Community Liaison and first Gender Equity Coordinator and designing and leading the Mayor’s Equity and Excellence initiative with Single Shepherd.”
Ms. Feijoo, who joined DOE as a Teacher 30 years ago and rose through the ranks to become Senior Supervising Superintendent, overseeing the other 46 Superintendents in the city school system, until Mr. Carranza demoted her after first tapping one of her subordinates, Cheryl Watson-Harris, to be First Deputy Chancellor. At the time, the suit noted, Ms. Watson-Harris lacked the necessary license to hold the position. Ms. Feijoo alleged that beginning last May, Ms. Watson-Harris held meetings solely with African-American Superintendents.
The three demoted executives are seeking a total of $90 million in compensatory damages, $30 million of it directly from Mr. Carranza. He told reporters at the Bronx event, “I want the most-qualified, the most-passionate, the most-focused-on-student educators that I can find… We look forward to disproving and vigorously fighting these allegations.”
He added a message to those who were part of his team, declaring, “I’ve got your back…We will not be dissuaded, we will not be pushed away. We’re going to take on segregation wherever we find it.”
He noted that since becoming Chancellor, he had cut the size of his cabinet from 23 executives to nine, and that changes had been made in the upper echelon because Principals and community members had told him “it was often difficult to get the assistance and guidance that they needed.”
Values Color Coordination
Noting that 70 percent of the students in the city school system were “black and brown,” he said he believed it was a benefit to have “senior administrators that look like them. What’s wrong with that? And they happen to be extremely well-qualified individuals who at any moment could get tapped to lead their own school system anywhere across the country.”
A spokeswoman for Mayor de Blasio brushed off the demoted women’s claims, saying that in the administration personnel decisions “are made based on merit and these are no exception.”
Let’s put aside the accuracy of that claim and acknowledge that when a new agency head arrives in a large municipal bureaucracy, that person often will make major personnel changes at the top, often without much regard for the feelings of the people being shunted aside. What makes the situation at DOE newsworthy is the racial component being raised by the three white female executives in their lawsuit.
The problem for DOE and Mr. Carranza is that the allegations—which have yet to be tested at trial—bear a disturbing consistency to claims made by others involved in the system, some of them parents, and are in line with the bull-in-a-china-shop tendencies exhibited by the Chancellor on more than one occasion.
DOE is reportedly paying close to $400,000 to the Center for Racial Justice as part of a $23-million anti-racism program. In February, presenters for the group trotted out a “racial-advantage hierarchy” for a group of parents from the Upper West Side and Harlem that listed blacks at the bottom and whites at the top. When an Asian parent asked why her group hadn’t been ranked, the presenters responded that Asians “benefitted from white supremacy” and “proximity to white privilege.”
The SHSAT Retention
Repugnant as such responses may seem, they’re not out of line with the attempt by Mr. Carranza and the Mayor to get rid of the Specialized High School Admissions Test that serves as the basis for acceptance to three elite city high schools, Brooklyn Tech, the Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School, because black and Latino students are underrepresented at those schools based on the city’s demographics.
Mr. Carranza earlier this spring told the Daily News that the 1971 law that established the test as the basis for admitting students to those schools was designed to “stop the integration” of them. If the law was intended to keep those schools white, it’s been an ignominious failure: Asians are the group with by far the largest student populations at all three schools.
The Mayor and the Chancellor seemed to believe they could roll over that community by swinging the cudgel of racial justice and arguing that the top 7 percent of students in all middle schools should be accepted, regardless of whether some of them were performing so poorly that many of their students would be unprepared to compete with their new colleagues at the elite high schools. They have been undeterred and apparently unembarrassed by arguments for keeping the SHSAT from black officials who hardly are typical establishment figures, most notably Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
Mr. Williams has said that scoring well on the exam a quarter-century ago earned him admission to Brooklyn Tech that otherwise would have been denied based on his being an underachiever with behavioral issues while in middle school. Noting that black students were well-represented at Tech during that era, he has called for preserving the test but taking steps to level the playing field that would include offering free exam-prep to all students of the kind that Asian pupils have benefitted from because their parents stretched their budgets to cover it, and mixing other factors into the admissions criteria.
No Capital in Albany
The backlash against the de Blasio/Carranza push has stalled their efforts to get a change in the law in Albany, at a time when the Mayor might have expected kinder treatment with both houses of the State Legislature controlled by Democrats. And as other elements of Mr. Carranza’s anti-racism initiative gain wider publicity and cast even more doubt on a de Blasio run for President that is increasingly looking like a costly exercise in self-indulgence, it figures to get harder to accomplish much in the state capital.
There has been a complaint by an anonymous Jewish educator who took the anti-bias training that after being invited to share experiences that led her to push for racial justice, she spoke of her grandparents having survived the Holocaust and was assailed for making the dialogue about “being Jewish” rather than focusing on “black and brown” students.
Others have complained about training centered on “interrogating whiteness” that makes Caucasian participants feel like they’re under siege. Mr. Carranza, apparently not looking to win any awards for empathy, has responded that complaints about feeling too uncomfortable for the training to be beneficial were coming from “the ones that need to reflect even harder upon what they believe.”
There are echoes in such attitudes of a particularly turbulent time in the system 51 years ago, when a battle over “community control” of schools in black and Latino neighborhoods produced a lengthy strike by the United Federation of Teachers in 1968.
The pressure then came from a single administrator of an experimental school district in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn, Rhody McCoy, rather than the head of the city system. He fired 13 Teachers, five Assistant Principals and one Principal, all but one of them white, most of them Jewish, claiming they were sabotaging efforts to let the community take charge of how the school was run.
Things haven’t gotten that bad this time, and are unlikely to, but there are some lessons that the Mayor and Mr. Carranza might take from that battle involving people who were sure that they had the answers to why students in minority neighborhoods weren’t doing better. The controversy resulted in the school system being decentralized, and the creation of 32 community school boards that were expected to provide greater sensitivity to local needs.
A Stinging Failure
In 1996, the State Legislature voted to strip the local boards of their hiring powers due to a combination of continuing low achievement in many minority neighborhoods and corruption that infested some of the boards. Among those who voted for the measure was Assemblyman Al Vann, who had been an Assistant Principal in Ocean-Hill Brownsville 28 years earlier and one of the more-outspoken figures during the controversy.
He had mellowed somewhat over that time, but that wasn’t the sole reason for his vote. It also represented an acknowledgment that whatever validity existed in the notion that Teachers and school administrators who were the same color as their students might have both a better chance and a greater desire to reach them wasn’t enough to overcome other factors.
At the time the Legislature acted, the New York Times reported that with a predominantly black staff from the classrooms to the Principal’s office, only 26 percent of the 13,400 children in District 23 were reading at grade level, the third-worst in the 32 districts citywide. The article reported that the district’s 18 schools were chronically short of both books and desks, and one new school hadn’t had a library for three years.
The school board’s President, Joseph Gabriel, whose father had been active in fighting for community control 28 years earlier, spoke of what he called “the valiant fight to have academically successful schools,” but added, “Unfortunately, we have not had effective schools in District 23.”
Three years earlier, another attempt to engineer the racial makeup of an agency, in that case the Human Resources Administration, came back to haunt Mayor David Dinkins as he sought re-election. A civil-service exam for Supervisor III produced a promotion list that the agency’s head, Barbara Sabol, criticized as “too male and too white.”
The union leader representing employees in the Supervisor titles at HRA, Charles Ensley, had a racially mixed membership, and he had long been a proponent of civil-service testing as the surest way to advancement for all of them because it removed much of the subjectivity in promotions, which more often than not in those years were going to be overseen by white managers.
Double Loss for Dinkins
When Ms. Sabol tried to ignore the list or, alternatively, pass over dozens of high-scoring white candidates to get what she believed to be an appropriate number of black candidates promoted, Mr. Ensley launched a legal challenge. Mr. Dinkins, with some reluctance, sided with his HRA Commissioner, saying, “The agency has both the right and the obligation to consider other factors such as racial or gender imbalance in making selections.”
He didn’t win that argument, and in the process he lost the backing of Mr. Ensley, who became the most-prominent African-American union leader to endorse Rudy Giuliani for Mayor based almost exclusively on that issue. That alliance didn’t last long; once in office the new Mayor made clear that his campaign slogan of “One City, One Standard” had been a sham, and Mr. Ensley cut his ties to him.
Upper-level positions such as those at issue in DOE are not filled by civil-service exam, and it is not unusual for agency heads to select people who they believe share their philosophy and are personally compatible with them. It is why it is difficult to win lawsuits claiming unfair demotions or terminations; unless agency heads can be proven to have violated the laws protecting people from discrimination based on race, religion, gender, age or disability, courts are likely to give them wide discretion.
It’s not clear, however, that Mr. Carranza, or other ranking members of his team, have stayed on the right side of that line. If their remarks to the three plaintiffs in the suit have left the city vulnerable to a large judgment and/or a messy trial, the case could wind up in a quiet settlement, or being drawn out long enough to run out the clock on Mr. de Blasio’s administration.
Rhetoric vs. Reality
But with slightly more than 30 months left in his term, that’s a pretty grim prospect if he’s not on his way to producing some tangible improvements in the school system, and it’s increasingly looking like he’s got a Chancellor who may be on the same wavelength ideologically but has a hard time persuading anyone that he’s got the answers to what ails it. Both of them seem more content advocating than they do accomplishing, with all the hard work and careful choices that entails. And they’re not likely to dispel that impression until the Mayor comes down off his campaign-trail cloud and Mr. Carranza steps off his high horse.
As the school-board president in Ocean Hill-Brownsville found himself conceding 23 years ago, righteous rhetoric and fighting “the valiant fight” don’t offer much solace if you can’t produce effective schools where they’re needed most.
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