safety first?

FDNY crackdown on fire hazards leads to removal of hallway art

Art on the walls makes a school environment beautiful, happy and bright – right? According to the FDNY, art on the walls can also make a school dangerous.

Last year, the fire department stepped up its inspections of public school buildings, adding the public buildings unit to three others that check into whether schools are meeting fire codes. Schools were warned if more than 20 percent of their wall space was covered with flammable materials such as paper and cloth, a frequent situation in a system where principals and students have long been encouraged to plaster hallways and classrooms with student work.

In total, FDNY cited approximately 1,500 violations in schools, and 500 of them were quickly fixed, according to an FDNY spokesman.

This year, the Department of Education gave principals a heads-up that the policy would continue. Although no policy has actually changed, principals were reminded of the specific fire code parameters this week, and the DOE is working with the FDNY, school facilities staff and the principals union to ensure compliance with the 20 percent rule, said Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman.

Many principals were caught off guard by the inspections and were worried about how their schools would be affected, said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the principals union.

“Some principals have expressed concerns to us that their schools will become very sterile-looking because the creative output of their children is very important, so they are trying to find some kind of balance,” she said.

Fourth-grade teachers at a Brooklyn elementary school said they returned to their classrooms this month September to find that the clotheslines that they had previously used to hang student work across the ceilings had been taken down. Although teachers have found ways to work around the crackdown, classrooms “just don’t look as bright and welcoming,” one teacher said.

But school and FDNY officials said aesthetic objections were no match for safety concerns.

“It’s not just about art,” said Jim Long, an FDNY spokesman. “It’s about the overall safety of the environment for students and teachers to work in.”

“Schools are proud of their students’ work and we’ll work with them to help them safely display it,” said Feinberg. “But our collective goal must be to ensure the safety of our students.”

In the letter to principals this week, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott assured principals that they would not be penalized if their schools display scaled-back decorations. The full letter is below.

9.7.11 NOTICE: ALL PRINCIPALS Displays of Student work in Hallways and Public Areas

Many of you are aware of the new FDNY unit which began inspecting schools last school year. The unit is charged with enforcing the Fire Code of the City of New York and pointing out violations of the code. Principals, as the persons in charge of the building, were asked to sign as the recipient for violations. The ISSUED TO line on these violations uses the building address or school number and does not use the name of the principal or person receiving the copy.

This year the FDNY will be asking you to sign only for violations for items under your control. You will be asked to sign for violations for Public Assembly Space overcrowding (when the space is programmed for more persons than the occupancy permit allows) or seating and table arrangement that is different than shown on the approved plans. You will be asked to sign for violations issued for corridor obstructions such as the placement of furniture in the path of egress.

We have worked with the FDNY, OSYD, and DSF to get approval for recording Fire Drill information in OORS. You will be asked to sign for violations if this is not done.

Violations for display of flammable materials in excess of the Code allowed limits will also need to be signed for by the Principal. The DOE and the FDNY have reached an agreement regarding these display that should go for to ease your concerns. The Fire Department is enforcing the Code regulations related to displays of flammable materials (paper and cloth are key examples) in corridors. Corridors are required to be free of obstructions and hazards to allow students and staff to safely exit the building in an emergency. The NYC Fire Code regulations limit the displays using flammable materials to not exceeding 20% of the gross wall area of the corridor. The FDNY Bureau of Fire Prevention understands the importance of engaging interest by displays of student work. The FDNY will accede to displays exceeding 20% of the wall area with certain provisos.

1) Displayed work must lay flat against the wall. Items protruding from the wall are not acceptable.

2) No flammable materials may be hung from the ceiling or suspended across the corridors. These types of displays expose a greater area for ignition. Further, heat banks up against the ceiling in fire situations and displays of this type present a critical hazard in a fire.

3) Freestanding flammable displays extending into the corridor, such as papier mâché trees, are not acceptable as they present potential problems during an evacuation. This type of display can be pushed into the path of egress and impact persons using the corridor.

4) There should be no floor to ceiling hangings in the corridor.

5) The amount in excess of 20% should be reasonable and done in moderation. The FDNY approval of amounts in excess of 20% should be looked on as a limited license, not carte blanche.

These limits have been clearly explained to those persons responsible for rating you, your school, and your programs. Your ability to work within the limits, and to use your and your student’s creativity to maximize the impact of the available areas, will be taken into consideration. You should rotate the displays, and review how best to present student work. It is not the amount of student work exhibited, but rather the quality of the work and the demonstration of process in the display that is critical.

Specific questions may be addressed to Volkert Braren at the Division of School Facilities. His email address is [email protected]

 

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”