A major bureaucratic reshuffling is underway at the city Education Department that could significantly change the way 1,600 public schools are supervised and supported.
At the center of schools Chancellor David Banks’s shakeup is a plan to rehire all 45 district superintendents — each of whom oversees a group of schools larger than most entire school systems across the country — and give the position the most power and responsibility it’s had in two decades.
That means cutting a layer of high-ranking officials above superintendents and eliminating borough-based support offices that have helped schools with a range of budgetary, academic and administrative needs — and shifting those responsibilities, along with hundreds of staffers, to newly-expanded superintendents ‘ offices.
Top Education Department officials say it’s all part of a broader effort to move personnel and decision-making power as close to schools, classrooms and parents as possible.
The reorganization is about “elevating, supporting and resourcing the superintendent office, so they can be sort of a one stop shop for parents, for teachers, for principals in order to be served in the best, most efficient way possible,” said deputy chancellor Desmond Blackburn.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering may seem abstract, but educators and parents say it will have a direct impact on how schools operate, how parents’ concerns are addressed, and Banks’s lofty education agenda plays out on the ground. The reshuffling has also ratcheted up anxiety for staffers unsure where they’ll land and principals bracing for yet another change.
“To not know who the person overseeing us and what the structure over us is going to look like, once again we feel blindsided by it,” said a Manhattan principal who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Blackburn acknowledged the “uncertainty can be unsettling,” but believes it’s “well worth it in the end to get this right.”
Big questions remain about how the reorganization will take shape.
“What does this look like? How do you make sure that the superintendents you pick are able to manage budgets, manage a large amount of staff? This is a different job. How do we make sure we have the right people?” said NeQuan McLean, a parent leader in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Education Department officials say they’re relying partly on parents to answer those questions by having each of the city’s district parent advisory councils host a town hall with the finalists for their superintendent position and meet with the DOE to relay their recommendations.
“That has never happened before,” McLean said. “We don’t know how it’s going to turn out… I will say, this is a step in the right direction with this particular part of the process.”
Banks is hardly the first city schools chancellor to confront the vexing question of how to wrangle the vast bureaucracy underpinning the nation’s largest school system.
“The big problem is that our school system… is bigger than most states’, and however you slice it it’s just a gigantic responsibility for any chancellor,” said Clara Hemphill, the founder of the InsideSchools website.
Former Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein approached the challenge by downgrading the role of district superintendent, and experimenting with other structures for supervising and supporting schools, including larger geographic regions and non-geographic “networks” that schools could opt into based on their specific needs.
Mayor de Blasio’s first chancellor Carmen Fariña revived the superintendent job and forced sitting district bosses to reapply. But alongside the superintendents, Fariña created nine borough-based support offices to handle everything from helping with budget questions to providing coaching for struggling principals and teachers to addressing the specialized needs of English Language Learners and kids with disabilities.
Fariña’s successor, Richard Carranza, introduced yet another change, adding eight “executive superintendents” to help him oversee district superintendents and the borough offices.
Banks argues that all of the additional layers of bureaucracy have clouded the chain of command — and watered down the authority of district superintendents.
“One of the concerns expressed to this administration was the inability [for superintendents] to deploy resources without having to ask another entity,” Blackburn said. “And also the… feedback we received from parents and community members was that their local district offices were not equipped with the resources to meet their needs.”
Currently, each of the city’s 32 geographic districts has a superintendent of elementary and middle schools, 11 others supervise high schools, and two superintendents oversee specialized districts.
There are some major logistical hurdles to transferring the borough offices neatly over to superintendents, however.
The biggest is that there are only nine borough offices and 45 superintendent offices, meaning there aren’t enough of some borough office positions to go around.
Blackburn said he’s planning to shift existing staffers to new roles to fill the gaps, or experiment with having some employees report to multiple superintendents.
Some parent advocates are worried that vital supports they’ve relied on borough offices to provide could get lost in the shuffle.
“I’m greatly concerned the quality will be diminished, not increased, by these changes because of the way they’re doing things,” said Jenn Choi, a Queens parent of students with disabilities and special education advocate who has turned to the borough offices when schools weren’t complying with special education mandates. Choi wants more involvement from the citywide parent special education advisory panel in planning the reorganization.
But an instructional coach at a borough office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the shift could allow superintendents “to not just be always responding to disasters and instead be more proactive with these new, larger teams they have.”
There are also lingering questions about the superintendent rehiring process, which is underway. Blackburn declined to say how many of the 45 sitting superintendents reapplied for their positions, but said the DOE has narrowed the pool to roughly 150 candidates — including sitting superintendents, executive superintendents, principals, and people from outside the city.
One sitting superintendent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their application, said the process felt opaque.
“I couldn’t tell you what the criteria is, or what they were evaluating,” said the superintendent.
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One thing DOE officials have made clear: they plan to give lots of credence to the views of parents, elected officials, and community members when selecting new superintendents, a role which Blackburn maintains will “be quite different” from the existing job, requiring an “additional skillset” and “a heavier lift.”
Between May 16 and 20, all of the city’s parent-led Community Education Councils will be expected to hold public town halls with the superintendent finalists in their district, before holding an official consultation with the Education Department.
McLean said he’s cautiously optimistic about the increased parent involvement, but hopes it doesn’t fade if and when Mayor Adams wins a renewal of mayoral control over city schools in the state legislature.
The sitting superintendent warned that while parental voice is important, it can be “biased” depending on who participates and should be balanced against feedback from principals and educators.
Blackburn said that parent feedback will be just one element and that the final decisions, expected in June, will be made by Banks, “full stop.”