The tendency at the Department of Education to either bury bad news or obscure the problem to avoid criticism has been on full display in two different forums recently. What is particularly notable is that in one of those situations, the problem originated during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as Mayor, but the DOE under both of Mayor de Blasio’s Chancellors inexplicably refused to remedy the situation until forced to by a judge’s order late last year.
That case involved an outspoken Teacher named Francesco Portelos, who eight years ago while a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader accused the Principal where he was then teaching, I.S. 49 in Staten Island, of misusing school funds.
DOE’s response was swift—against Mr. Portelos. It lodged three dozen claims against him and removed him from classroom teaching while attempting to fire him. Later in 2012, he brought an improper-practice charge with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board alleging that DOE violated state Civil Service Law by punishing him for his union work.
In 2014, a hearing officer tossed most of the charges against Mr. Portelos but sustained a couple. She fined him $10,000 but rejected DOE’s bid to fire him.
At that point, with Mr. de Blasio in office, it might have seemed like the smart thing for DOE to do was start fresh and show the climate had changed along with the leadership there and at City Hall. But in 2017, Administrative Law Judge Angela Blassman found that school officials improperly disciplined Mr. Portelos for sending union-related e-mails and that a negative classroom rating of him had been “improperly motivated.” She ordered DOE to cut it out and purge the Teacher’s personnel file of the trumped-up evaluation, and directed it to post her ruling “at all physical and electronic locations customarily used to communicate with” UFT members.
DOE defied her order. In August 2018—by which time Richard Carranza had succeeded Carmen Fariña as Chancellor—Mr. Portelos notified PERB of its noncompliance. The school system’s response when prodded was to create a link to the unflattering decision on the labor-relations page of its employee website.
Just before Thanksgiving last year, State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba in Albany ruled that this amounted to burying the notice rather than widely disseminating it, and ordered DOE to post physical copies of the notice in all schools and offices to which UFT members had access.
It would be unfair to blame Mr. Carranza and his tendency toward tunnel vision for stringing out the case, since Ms. Fariña and Mr. Bloomberg’s final Schools Chancellor, Dennis Walcott, served for most of the period in which the retaliation and unwillingness to acknowledge it when caught took place.
But the current Chancellor deserves most of the blame for the letter he received Jan. 8 from the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators about a survey done by an independent research firm that found only 21 percent of the 2,300 union members it polled were happy with recent changes to the school-discipline code.
CSA President Mark Cannizzaro said that while his members believed it had been a good move to abandon the past zero-tolerance policies regarding student misconduct, they had been replaced by standards that “eroded their discretion and tied their hands.”
The de Blasio administration has boasted of the decline in student suspensions over the past six years. But Teamsters Local 237 President Greg Floyd has maintained for several years that this is not the result of better comportment by students but of an abandonment of standards that if anything has made some schools more dangerous.
Mr. Cannizzaro seconded those complaints and took them a bit further, saying that notwithstanding a reported 32-percent drop in school crime since Mr. de Blasio took office, in some schools “misbehavior seemed to be on the rise, messing with the climate of the school, leading some children to believe…there are no consequences for disruptive or threatening behavior. We are dancing around this rising reality because the powers-that-be are hell-bent on presenting the system as an overnight success.”
Compounding the problem, he stated in a newsletter to his members, was that while the administration has looked to substitute “restorative justice”—in which misbehaving students are encouraged to make amends to those whom they harmed—for suspensions whenever possible, school supervisors had received “little or no training” in how to institute this practice. It hasn’t helped, Mr. Cannizzaro said, that when Principals are out of their buildings for meetings, restorative justice becomes the responsibility of Assistant Principals—yet more than a few schools lack someone serving in that job.
Asked for a response to Mr. Cannizzaro’s critique of problems with the school-disciplinary system, a DOE spokeswoman sidestepped by saying the agency was “grateful the CSA continues to champion restorative practices, which are contributing to making our schools more safe and welcoming spaces.”
That was diametrically opposed to what Mr. Cannizzaro said his members were experiencing. But too often this Mayor and this Chancellor tend to ignore unpleasant realities that clash with their view of how the education system should operate.
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