A disgraced former principal whose academic fraud drew personal condemnation from Chancellor Dennis Walcott is picking up city paychecks again after successfully escaping the city’s efforts to fire her.
The Department of Education moved to fire Lynn Passarella after an investigation found that she fudged academic records, misused funds, and falsified student transcripts as principal at Theatre Arts Production Company middle and high school.
But more than a year after charges were filed, an arbitrator ruled that termination was an “excessive” penalty — even though he agreed that Passarella, a 17-year tenured employee of the school system, had indeed committed much of the misconduct that investigators found and should not be allowed to lead a school.
In her defense, Passarella argued that she was set up to fail by an accountability system installed under the Bloomberg administration.
The case spotlights an issue that has long frustrated department officials, who argue that labor laws protect school employees from being fired for even the most egregious misconduct. While much of the scrutiny has focused on a small number of teachers accused of sexually inappropriate behavior who remain on the city’s payroll, the Passarella case shows that the legal process also affects educators found to have misbehaved in other ways.
“I find it unacceptable that an arbitrator would overrule us, but again that’s the way the law is designed and it shouldn’t be that way,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today, shortly after learning of the decision. Walcott has lobbied state legislators to give the chancellor the power to fire school employees accused of sexual misconduct only.
A report of the city’s probe into TAPCO was released in March 2012 and marked the close of a tumultuous era for the South Bronx school under Passarella, who opened the school in 1999. The school received high praise for overcoming long odds en route to earning 90 percent graduation rates and a top score on the city’s progress reports. The school’s marks earned Passarella $40,000 in bonuses through the Bloomberg administration’s performance pay program.
But the investigation challenged the school’s success story. Students received class credits regardless of their work, attendance sheets were tampered with, and an erasure analysis of state tests revealed that a high rate of answers were changed from incorrect to correct, investigators found.
Walcott was so disturbed by the findings that he stripped Passarella of her pay and, in unusually strong words, publicly pledged to seek her termination.
“The behavior uncovered in this report is dishonest and disgraceful, and shows a blatant disregard for principal responsibilities,” Walcott said at the time.
But the city’s efforts to fire Passarella were unsuccessful. The arbitrator, a neutral hearing officer assigned to review the legal case, determined in June that Passarella should remain on the department’s payroll at her old salary of $145,493, although he ruled that the department was justified in removing her from her position at TAPCO.
“[Passarella] still has a great deal to offer the NYC DOE, albeit not in the position of school principal,” the arbitrator, Joel Douglas, wrote in his ruling. He even cited TAPCO’s city scores and Passarella’s performance bonuses, both based on the fraudulent data, as evidence of a past record of success that should not be overlooked.
A spokeswoman for the Council School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals union representing Passarella, defended the decision.
“When a neutral arbitrator heard all of the allegations, he felt that a dismissal was unwarranted,” the spokeswoman said. “We agree with his decision.”
City officials said Passarella is currently a member of the “Absent Teacher Reserve,” the pool of educators who do not have permanent positions, and is working on finding a job within the department. She works in a Bronx office where her former school’s network is housed.
Several calls and messages to the phone number for Passarella’s office were not returned. But according to testimony provided in the arbitrator’s report, Passarella said that she quickly got in over her head at TAPCO, which opened as a middle school and expanded to include a high school.
She also argued that she was “the first victim of the principal empowerment theory,” according to the arbitrator’s report, a reference to the accountability model developed by Chancellor Joel Klein that gave administrators more power over how their schools are run in exchange for greater academic accountability. Passarella’s interpretation of this model was that “a principal should have virtual free rein in attempting to meet school objectives,” the report says.
“I didn’t avail myself to the nuts and bolts of the organizational pieces of running the school,” she told the arbitrator. “That was an oversight.”
The city teachers union formally endorsed Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio this afternoon, putting a finishing touch on a delicate post-primary process that included a secret meeting at the the union’s headquarters over the weekend.
The endorsement comes two days after de Blasio’s closest rival and the union’s original pick, Bill Thompson, conceded in the Democratic primary. Made with little of the fanfare that accompanied the union’s decision to back Thompson in June, the endorsement also shifts the focus of the mayoral race fully onto the race between de Blasio and Republican nominee Joe Lhota.
De Blasio spoke to teachers who make up the union’s Delegate Assembly at UFT headquarters shortly after they voted on a resolution to give him their endorsement. He then appeared with President Michael Mulgrew and about a dozen supporters at a staid press conference in a building next door.
De Blasio credited Mulgrew for brokering the concession agreement with Thompson, which took place at UFT headquarters on Saturday night. Mulgrew said the conversation between the primary rivals was not contentious.
“In the end, the decision was made that what was in the best interest of the city was to unite the Democratic party to make sure that a Democrat becomes the mayor of New York City and not the Republican nominee,” Mulgrew said.
“On Monday, you saw a result of that conversation,” he added.
De Blasio aggressively sought the union’s endorsement earlier this year but was passed up in favor of Thompson, who was seen as having a clearer path to victory.
In the lead-up to the primary election, the union focused most of its campaigning efforts on supporting Thompson, spending $2.6 million on communications and advertising for his candidacy.
But occasionally, tension with de Blasio surfaced as he shot to the top of polls in August. First, Mulgrew mocked de Blasio’s unsuccessful pursuit of the union’s endorsement after de Blasio made comments about being unencumbered by union interests when it comes time to negotiate new labor contracts. De Blasio compared himself to Mayor Bloomberg to characterize his independence to bargain with the teachers union.
Mulgrew, in response, said, “I am surprised he would have found our endorsement such a potential threat to his independence, particularly since he was on my calendar so many times earlier this year, many of our staff members thought he had an office in our building.”
Mulgrew also joined Thompson’s supporters in criticizing de Blasio’s plan to fund universal pre-kindergarten, a proposal that would require approval from the state legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Today, Mulgrew signaled that he remained skeptical of de Blasio’s plan to raise taxes, even as he said he appreciates de Blasio’s promises.
“It’s getting it done is really what the vision and the goal here is,” Mulgrew said of de Blasio’s proposal. “We’ve been hearing about all day pre-K for 40 years and no one’s figured it out and he is saying he is completely committed to getting it done.”
A lot of attention was placed on the union’s failed endorsement, with suggestions that it would hurt its relationship with whoever occupied City Hall next. But de Blasio suggested that it would be water under the bridge moving forward.
And Mulgrew said that even though the union did pick the winning candidate in the primary, it had influenced the election results and would do so in the general election as well.
“The members know that where we endorsed Mr. Thompson and where he ended up was … very positive,” he said. “He moved up quite a bit and I was very proud of the work our union has done.”
De Blasio said that as a parent whose two children attended public schools (his now-famous son Dante attended M.S. 51 in Park Slope and now goes to Brooklyn Technical High School) the support from teachers meant more than a political notch in his belt.
“Chirlane and I have just the deepest appreciation for the dozens and dozens of teachers who took Chiara and Dante by the hand over the last 14 years and supported them, uplifted them, were there for them in so many ways,” de Blasio said. “We have had an extraordinary experience just as parents seeing just how good the teachers of this city are in every sense.”"I think this support today strengthens our political coalition that will allow us to make the changes we need.”
When Moses Ojeda graduated from Thomas Edison Career and Technical Education High School three decades ago, he quickly learned he was not prepared for the real world. Now, as the school’s principal, his driving motivation is to prevent students from experiencing the same thing.
Ojeda has spent nearly 25 years at Thomas Edison, as a student, teacher, assistant principal and now as its principal, making him an anomaly in a system where administrators often take over schools with which they have no connection. Today, Ojeda has used his unique perspective to bring the school up to speed by updating its technical programs and academic standards.
As a high school student, Ojeda studied in the business equipment machine repair program, which included learning to fix electronic typewriters. But when he graduated in 1993, he said he wasn’t prepared for the job market because no one was using the electronic typewriters any more.
“If I had gone into the industry, I wouldn’t have gotten a job,” he said.
But he decided to go in a different direction after the teacher who ran the machine repair program, Alexander Bell, asked Ojeda to help him teach his classes. Ojeda loved helping other students, and Bell encouraged him to attend a five-year teacher training program — Success Via Apprenticeship, run jointly by the city, the City University of New York, and the teachers union — where he could be certified to teach technical subjects.
The program required students to complete six-month internships and when it came for Ojeda to do his, he returned to Thomas Edison and worked with Bell to get rid of the electronic typewriter repair program and replace it with a computer repair program, which Bell continues to oversee today.
After he finished his degree, Ojeda worked as a teacher at Thomas Edison for 10 years and later as an assistant principal for four years. In that time, he found other ways to update the schools’ programs.
He saw how the computer industry was beginning to build its own networks, so he helped bring in a new CISCO networking class, which teaches students how to network buildings with routers and switches. When he noticed that e-commerce was becoming more popular and everyone wanted a webpage, he convinced the principal at the time to add a web design program. Now, he wants to partner with a solar energy company to revamp the electrical installation program that is shrinking because students are more interested in the school’s information technology programs.
Above all else, he said, his goal is to ensure that the school and its graduates are relevant by understanding industries’ needs.
But when Ojeda took over as principal a year ago, he faced a whole different set of challenges. When he spoke to colleges and employers, they told him that Thomas Edison graduates often had weak communication skills and lacked creativity. The school was already beginning to work on aligning its curriculum to the new Common Core standards, but Ojeda took the efforts a step further, requiring all teachers to issue more writing assignments and assign two research projects during the year. He asked librarians and English teachers to help the entire staff implement the new standards.
“So many kids hide behind the computer, texting and e-mailing. They feel more comfortable communicating that way,” Ojeda said. “When they get in front of someone they’re shy, they don’t have those skills, they’re losing that. You need that in the real world.”
In English classes, students had to write argumentative essays based on books they were reading. In a technical class, a student wrote a comparative essay about the difference between Wifi and Bluetooth technology. And in a physical education class, students learned how to read and understand each category on a nutrition label.
“Now not only are CTE students ready for the job force, they’re college ready as well,” Ojeda said.
Adding more challenging academic assignments was more work for teachers and students, and Ojeda said some pushed back on the changes. But he insisted that teachers embrace the new standards, he said.
“In the beginning, teachers felt like, you want me to be an English teacher? I barely have time to get through all the curriculum,” he said. “But now they realize competitions want that, and being aligned with the Common Core will also help them with their teacher evaluations.”
Ojeda talks about competitions a lot. Under his leadership, all 12 career and technical education programs compete in some type of competition, whereas before only a couple did. Ojeda proudly talks about a recent Thomas Edison school senior who was offered a $40-an-hour CISCO internship after beating out competitors with college degrees, and last spring, when the school’s two-person web design team won first place in the state’s Skills USA competition.
“Why am I so big on them? There’s the motivational factor. It motivates kids to be top of the class,” he said. “It’s also a way for me to measure myself against other schools city wide, state wide and nationally. If we’re not coming in the top 10 then we’re not doing something right. … We have to stay on the cutting edge.”
At every turn, Ojeda is trying to give students as much hands-on, real world experience as possible. With the robotics program, usually only seniors received hands-on training while everyone else was doing electronics theory.
“That can be boring,” Ojeda said. “I always put myself in their seat. If I’m in a classroom and I’m bored, I’m going to tell that teacher, I don’t mean no disrespect, but you lost me a few times, and if you’re losing me with the knowledge I have of CTE, then you’re losing them.”
So Ojeda decided that beginning in the 10th grade, students would be able to begin working hands-on with the robots. Last year the 11th-graders, with just three weeks to prepare for a national robotics competition, placed 17th out of 65 in the competition.
As an assistant principal, Ojeda also expanded the automotive shop program from one year to three after teachers told him they didn’t have time to do anything more than teach students to detail cars. Last spring, senior Shazim Nasim won first place in a national collision and refinishing competition. He was also named the salutatorian and received a full-ride to a Boston technical college that focuses on auto mechanics.
“The program used to be looked down upon, but now it’s highly respected,” said Barry Roopnarine, who teaches automotive collision and refinishing.
Ojeda credits much of his success today to Bell, his former teacher and current colleague.
“One thing I was taught by Mr. Bell when I was a student was in life, make sure you pick a career that you love, because if you don’t love your career, you’re going to dread waking up Monday mornings,” Ojeda said. “That always stuck with me. I love my job.”
Marc Sternberg, the Department of Education official who has spearheaded controversial school closures and co-locations since 2010, is leaving the city to oversee education philanthropy at the Walton Family Foundation.
Starting next month, senior deputy chancellor Sternberg will be Walton’s executive director of K-12 strategy. Walton’s education agenda focuses on promoting choice and competition, and includes creating charter schools, promoting school choice, and improving teacher quality. The foundation spent more than $158 million on education initiatives last year, and this year has made sizable gifts to Teach for America and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst nonprofit.
Sternberg’s departure comes as his division of the Department of Education has set in motion a bevy of plans to take effect after Mayor Bloomberg leaves office.
The department has asked the Panel for Educational Policy to sign off on dozens of new schools and space-sharing arrangements to begin in 2014 or beyond. But those plans could be in jeopardy regardless of the panel’s vote this year, as Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, has said he would cancel any space planning that the department does between now and the end of the year that he deems negative for schools.
Sternberg’s level of involvement in those changes — which map closely to Walton’s priorities — over his final few weeks at the department remains unclear. A department spokeswoman said Sternberg had consulted with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to ensure that his ties with Walton would not compromise planning that takes place now.
“Marc sought advice from the COIB and conformed his conduct to that advice so there is no conflict,” said spokeswoman Erin Hughes. She said Sternberg would not be part of discussions before the Panel for Educational Policy when the appointed body votes on the proposals next month.
More broadly, Sternberg’s portfolio at the department is directly in de Blasio’s line of fire. Sternberg oversaw opening and closing schools and was instrumental in identifying space for charter schools to expand in public school buildings. (After a state Supreme Court judge gave a light to a set of school closures in 2011, he invited colleagues at the department to celebrate at a happy hour.) In addition to pushing back against the city’s immediate space plans, de Blasio has said he would charge rent to charter schools if elected, which could make it difficult for many of them to continue operating inside city-owned buildings.
The city’s top two other deputy chancellors oversee initiatives that are more likely to continue under a new mayor. Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky supervises academics and school accountability, while David Weiner oversees teacher evaluations and labor negotiations.
Sternberg was promoted to senior deputy chancellor for strategy and policy just this April after serving as deputy chancellor for portfolio planning since 2010. He became a teacher through Teach For America, and before joining the department he started and was principal of the Bronx Lab School and spent a year working under U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Sternberg becomes the first deputy chancellor at the Department of Education to leave with the Bloomberg administration’s term nearing its close. Other top officials moved on earlier in Bloomberg’s third term, particularly during the rocky period after Joel Klein resigned as chancellor and was replaced briefly by media executive Cathie Black.
Sternberg’s last day at the department is Oct. 4, and he’ll start at Walton’s Washington, D.C. office on Oct. 28. Saskia Levy Thompson, who is currently a senior advisor to Chancellor Dennis Walcott, will take over for him at the Department of Education. Before joining the department’s central administration, Levy Thompson was an author of a 2010 research study that found benefits to the city’s small high schools. She began her career as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 110 in Manhattan.
“Our loss is the Walton Family Foundation’s gain and I am excited that Marc will continue his work around providing high quality school options for families across the country,” Walcott said in a statement.
This story has been corrected to reflect Saskia Levy Thompson’s current position at the Department of Education.
ALBANY — When Principal Alonta Wrighton wanted to open up P.S. 11 a week earlier than normal to prepare teachers for a year of big changes, red tape blocked her.
First, Wrighton said, she needed a permit and $2,200 to pay to keep the school open longer than normal.
And then she still couldn’t require her staff to show up, since the week before Labor Day was not among the training days listed in the city’s contract with the teachers union.
Both issues inhibited city schools’ ability to implement the Common Core standards, Wrighton said during a panel discussion of educators at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting in Albany.
“[Professional development] should be looked at as a given,” Wrighton said. “I should not have to use my budget to open up my building early and train my teachers.”
Wrighton’s concerns were among many raised by the five educators invited from around the state to speak about the challenges that continue to face schools in the second year of the standards’ rollout. Her request for more required training time reflected a contract issue between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, but it also illustrated the depth of support that educators say is needed to successfully transition to the Common Core.
State Education Commissioner John King said time for teacher training would be a crucial issue for the next New York City mayor to tackle when he sits down with the teachers union next year.
“I think one challenge, when contract negotiations happen for the New York City UFT contract, will be to look at the question of professional development and how much time is set aside, how are costs covered, and those kinds of questions,” King said.
Monday was the first meeting for Board of Regents, which sets policy for the State Education Department, since the school year began. It also came a day before the Regents policies are set to come under scrutiny at the first of four hearings that State Sen. John Flanagan has called to take a critical look at how teacher evaluations and Common Core have rolled out since last year.
The panel discussion at the Board of Regents meeting wasn’t as contentious as the hearings are expected to be, but several educators did echo criticism that’s been lodged since last year.
“We’ve got to find a way to slow down where we can slow down,” said Mike Ford, superintendent of Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District, a rural school district with many low-income students.
Ford said his teachers were “flying blindly” in preparing for the state tests and he urged state officials to release test items as a way to help guide what to teach. Officials have declined the request in recent years, though they released a small selection of items from this year’s tests, the first to be tied to the Common Core, over the summer.
While several of the panelists said they used the state’s Common Core curriculum web site, EngageNY.org, to source curriculum materials, they also said the site still did not have enough resources for all grades and subjects.
Angelique Johnson, who runs one of the state’s 125 teacher centers, which offer professional development services to teachers, said that her budget is a fourth of what it was just a few years ago. She said that teacher centers could be an important way to provide training to teachers on Common Core, but said that budget cuts were a restriction.
Former Francis Lewis High School Principal Musa Ali Shama said he is concerned that high schools would see the same dramatic declines that elementary and middle schools experienced this year once the Regents exams are aligned to the new standards.
The annual standards provide a framework to guide how to develop curriculum modules and lessons that build on each other over time, beginning in the earliest grades. Shama argued that since this year’s ninth-graders, who will take a new Common Core-aligned math test this year, did not benefit from years of the standards, they will unfairly receive low grades.
“You would hate to hear that only 30 percent of your students are prepared for college,” said Shama, who is now overseeing principal evaluations for the city Department of Education.
Wrighton suggested that her school’s math test results this year bore out Shama’s argument. P.S. 11′s third graders, who entered kindergarten when P.S. 11 fully adopted the new math standards, significantly outperformed students in higher grades, bucking a statewide trend.
Wrighton credited her school’s math specialist, Rasheda Rand, and Rand’s content expertise — Rand was a math major in college — as a reason for her school’s strong math scores.
Wrighton said that hiring restrictions in the city limited principals’ ability to bring on the people they need to reach the new standards. Out of 50 candidates she interviewed over the summer, she said just four were ones that she’d consider hiring.
Principals need the opportunity to hire the “best, smartest and brightest minds,” Wrighton said, “not just warm bodies, not just certifications and diplomas.”
The Regents will turn their attention to teacher preparation today during their higher education meeting.