Inside baseball

DOE's public affairs director leaving to teach in Central America

Lenny Speiller, the education department’s head of public affairs whose stint was checkered by a lobbying incident that got him into trouble with city investigators, is making an unusual career move. He’s moving to Honduras to become a teacher.

Speiller’s exit is part of a restructuring within the Department of Education’s communication and legislative offices meant to improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public, Chief Operating Officer Veronica Conforme told staff in an email this week.

Speiller’s role in charge of public affairs was to work with elected officials and community-based organizations on DOE initiatives and to curry support for the department’s legislative goals. Under a four-office merger, public affairs will be folded into the External Affairs office. The other public-facing shops getting absorbed are: Communications, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor’s Strategic Communications Group (a spokeswoman said the last one helps Dennis Walcott read and respond to emails from the public).

Jessica Scaperotti, a former Cuomo and Bloomberg aide who joined the department in April, will over see the new streamlined office. Elizabeth Rose, a public affairs official, will temporarily fill in for Speiller while a permanent replacement is found.

In announcing Speiller’s departure to staff, Conforme didn’t offer much of a reflection on his two-and-a-half year tenure, which was filled with a busy legislative agenda. During his time, Speiller worked on the successful push to raise the state’s cap on  charter schools and on the less-successful effort to reform teacher tenure laws.

But it was his work on the issue of seniority-based layoff laws that got him into trouble.

In October, Richard Condon, the Special Commissioner of Investigation, found that Speiller broke the law when he urged school employees to engage in political lobbying on the issue.

Here’s what we wrote about the investigation in October:

During “Lobby Week” in March, Lenny Speiller, executive director of the DOE’s Office of Public Affairs, inserted language into an email to parent coordinators asking them to share a petition calling on lawmakers to do away with seniority layoff rules for teachers, investigators concluded. Mayor Bloomberg was pushing the policy change heavily at the time. But the state constitution prohibits public employees from engaging in private political lobbying.

Speiller was reprimanded by Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who ordered him to take ethics training classes. His personnel file also received a letter noting the incident.

The report said that Speiller worked closely on the issue with his predecessor, Micah Lasher, who was Bloomberg’s top Albany lobbyist at the time. Speiller wrote an email to Lasher asking for advice on the political language used in the petition. Lasher didn’t response and was not included in Condon’s investigation.

City Councilman Robert Jackson, who regularly butts heads with the department as chair of the education committee, called Speiller, “a very cordial, diplomatic and level-headed person” to work with.

Jackson also said that the lobbying impropriety shouldn’t be held against him.

“I don’t think he did it on his own,” Jackson said. “If he was told that that’s what he had to do, he either had to do it or he wouldn’t have his job.”

Lasher left the Bloomberg administration in April to take a job running the New York office of Michelle Rhee’s political action committee StudentsFirstNY.

Shortly after, Speiller spoke to Walcott about leaving, Scapperotti said in an email.

“Two months ago, Lenny spoke to the Chancellor about an opportunity for he and his wife to teach at a developing school in Honduras,” Scapperotti wrote.

Speiller, whose last day of work is today, declined to comment through Scaperotti.

Speiller is the second top communications official to leave the DOE this year and there has been high turnover within the communications department in recent months. Communications director Natalie Ravitz left in January, which was followed by the departure of three other press officers.

Scapperotti said the reshufflng will improve how the DOE communicates with members of the public.

“This was done so we can better keep parents, teachers and the general public informed about DOE programs and initiatives,” she said.

Below is Conforme’s letter to DOE staff.

Dear Colleagues,

I want to share some exciting news about our external communications and government affairs team and a merger that will enable us to have a more streamlined approach in communicating with our stakeholders. To reflect the already close working relationships shared among the staffers in Communications, Public Affairs, Digital Communications, and the Chancellor’s Strategic Communications Group, we have merged these teams into one External Affairs Office under the leadership of Jessica Scaperotti.

As many of you already know, Thursday is Lenny Speiller’s last day. After serving as our Director of Public Affairs for two and a half years, he will be leaving New York City to take a teaching position in Honduras. While we continue the search for his replacement, Elizabeth Rose will manage day-to-day operations, reporting to Jenny Sobelman, Chief of Staff for External Affairs.

I appreciate your cooperation as we move forward with this exciting change, and am very much looking forward to the work ahead.

Thank you.

Veronica

 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede