Andrew Cuomo New York Turnaround Schools

New York’s Last District Takeover

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New York state’s new Conmissioner of Education warned Buffalo to “fix” their schools or she would place the district in receivership.

It’s worth recalling the state’s previous attempt to “fix” a failing district. In 2002, the legislature passed a law permitting a state takeover of the segregated Roosevelt school district on Long Island.

John Hildebrand of Newsday summed up the gains and losses in 2013, when the state relinquished control.

“New York State’s historic takeover of Roosevelt schools has fallen short of its purpose in boosting student academic performance, raising questions over how Albany might better deal with struggling districts in the future, policymakers say. The state is highly unlikely ever to attempt another direct takeover of a local district, those officials add. Albany’s intervention ends Monday, after 11 years and more than $300 million in extra state spending.

The period — marked by limited scholastic progress and memorable mistakes by state officials and their appointees — was the first and only time the state ever managed a local school system. “I can tell you right off the bat that the state Education Department has no capabilities to run a school district,” said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who is Long Island’s representative to the state Board of Regents. “We need other alternatives, if we’re ever going to turn around other districts that are really not succeeding.” Regents set policy for the Education Department, which has run Roosevelt since state lawmakers approved the takeover in 2002. Tilles joined the board three years later.

By some measures, academic achievement has risen. In the 2011-12 school year, for example, 87 percent of Roosevelt High School’s graduates — 159 students in all — earned Regents diplomas. Only 12 percent, or 10 students, obtained such credentials in 2001-02. Regents diplomas signify completion of at least some college-prep coursework. The end of state control was hailed as “Roosevelt Independence Day” and “a historic moment” by school board leaders speaking Saturday before a high school graduation crowd of more than 1,000. Parents and other residents, both there and at Friday’s eighth-grade moving-up ceremony, voiced cautious optimism over the district’s prospects under local management. “This gives Roosevelt a chance to show its self-worth,” said the Rev. Al Henry, pastor of the local End Time Ministries church, whose daughter, Alyshia, 14, will enter ninth grade in September. “I think we have a 75 percent chance to overcome our past failures.”

How Roosevelt stacks up

In relative terms, Roosevelt remains far behind most other districts in student performance. Only 3.8 percent of 2011-12 graduates earned a Regents diploma with Advanced Designation, showing they were well-prepared for college. Nassau County’s average was 52.4 percent. The district’s high school has languished on Albany’s list of lowest-achieving schools throughout the takeover. The middle school and Centennial Avenue Elementary School also are listed as low performers. “I don’t think the state’s intervention was a plus,” said Dorothy Boxley, a 50-year Roosevelt resident and former education chairwoman for the local branch of the NAACP.

Roosevelt is a relatively small district, with about 2,800 students in a community of less than two square miles in the heart of Hempstead Town. The district’s enrollment is 53 percent black and 39 percent Hispanic, and 56 percent of all students received subsidized lunches in the 2011-12 school year.

The district is essentially tied with the Hempstead system as Nassau County’s poorest in terms of personal income, and historically has struggled to keep pace with wealthier systems nearby. The state’s deep involvement in Roosevelt dates to 1976, when it approved the first in a series of financial bailouts.

Some analysts say that comparing Roosevelt against wealthier districts overlooks the intertwined effects of poverty and housing discrimination on student performance. More than half of its students live below or near the poverty line; 21 percent speak limited English. “Nobody at the national, state or local levels wants to address the fact that there’s no magic bullet for improving the school performance of children who live in poverty,” said Alan Singer, a professor of secondary education at Hofstra University in Hempstead. “You cannot improve fundamentally their school performance without addressing the condition of their lives,” Singer said.

The 2002 takeover law gave state education commissioners unprecedented powers over Roosevelt and authorized state control for a minimum of nine years, with an optional two-year extension. Over time, commissioners ousted elected school board members, named replacements, exercised vetoes over local spending and appointed three separate superintendents. One provision of the law allowed for gradual resumption of local school board elections, which resulted in frequent clashes between the state’s appointees and elected trustees.

Albany pumped in extra money over the 11 years of intervention. Roosevelt received more than $210 million in state commitments for school reconstruction, and a total of $90 million in operating aid on top of what districts normally receive.

Any state takeover failure in Roosevelt has not been for lack of trying. In recent years, for instance, high school teachers such as Teri McGrath, Yolette Wright and Christina Squillante have taught a growing number of Advanced Placement courses set at a college level. Many enrolled teens are the sons and daughters of immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Haiti — in some cases, the first in their families to speak fluent English….

Albany’s intervention had two broad goals from the outset. One objective — the easier to accomplish, as it turned out — revolved around Roosevelt’s management and infrastructure. The idea was to curb local political infighting, erase budget deficits and rebuild aging schools — two of which were deemed safety hazards. Those efforts have been largely successful, though school construction projects have been marked by delays and cost overruns, and some residents worry about the cost of upkeep on newly expanded schools. Exhibit A is Roosevelt’s once-shabby high school. The sprawling, two-story structure is due to reopen in September following a $66.9-million renovation and expansion that includes newly air-conditioned classrooms, 16 science and computer labs, a dance studio and job-training centers for prospective chefs and nurses. Completion of the high school project caps a districtwide, $245.5-million reconstruction effort launched in 2004 — the most ambitious face-lift of its sort ever undertaken on the Island. Since May, student groups have toured the rebuilt high school, admiring its features. Brianna Doe, 16, a sophomore, said she was especially impressed by new fume-suppressant safety equipment in laboratories that will allow her and classmates to do science experiments they’ve never tried before. “I was wowed, the building was so beautiful,” said Doe, who served as a volunteer tour guide. The other objective was to boost students’ academic achievement to levels acceptable under state and federal standards….

Roosevelt High School remains on the state’s list of so-called Schools Under Registration Review, or SURR. The list includes schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, academically speaking. Roosevelt High has been stuck there more than 20 years running — a state record. Technically, SURR schools failing to improve can be stripped of state registrations — shut down, in other words. The state, however, has never spelled out exactly how that might work in a district, such as Roosevelt, with only one high school…

Mismanagement by some state-appointed school administrators left a bad taste. In September 2006, the Education Department discovered that the superintendent at the time, Ronald O. Ross, had run up a budget deficit eventually pegged at $8 million. Ross insisted the extra spending was essential to expand student services, but expenses included $6,000 for his own planned educational travel to Argentina and Antarctica. After public outcry, the trip was canceled. State administrators encountered embarrassments of their own. In January 2007, Education Department officials revealed that construction of a new Roosevelt Middle School was costing significantly more than originally estimated. Overruns ultimately totaled $16 million; $5 million was reimbursed by insurance. The extra costs were for cleanup of higher-than-expected levels of DDT on the 11-acre school site. The land previously was occupied by a county mosquito-control unit, and excavated dirt was so polluted that it had to be hauled to a Canadian landfill. Roosevelt residents voiced outrage over ballooning costs. In April 2007, the state education commissioner at the time, Richard Mills, appeared at a public meeting in the district and admitted he had been too slow in stemming the flow of red ink. Ross stepped down two months later and Mills resigned the following year, both under fire. Disillusionment over Roosevelt’s experience has raised questions over how the state might better deal with other districts facing similar problems, such as Hempstead and Wyandanch. “In the bigger picture, there continue to be districts around the state that are struggling,” said Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), a longtime state legislator whose constituent area includes Wyandanch. “But I don’t think we’ll ever see the state Education Department proposing taking over a district like Roosevelt again, simply because it wasn’t a very good experience for them.”

States such as Ohio and Michigan are re-examining their takeover policies. One national education leader, Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that takeovers generally have not made much academic headway. Domenech knows the issue from the inside. In 1995, as a regional BOCES superintendent on Long Island, he headed a state-appointed panel that monitored Roosevelt’s day-to-day operations — a preliminary step toward direct takeover. “Certainly, from my perspective, at the

Domenech knows the issue from the inside. In 1995, as a regional BOCES superintendent on Long Island, he headed a state-appointed panel that monitored Roosevelt’s day-to-day operations — a preliminary step toward direct takeover. “Certainly, from my perspective at the national level, state takeovers are hardly the model to follow,” said Domenech, whose association, based in a Washington, D.C., suburb, represents more than 13,000 educators in the United States.

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