Thursday, December 12, 2013
NEW YORK CITY — WhenEva Moskowitz starts a new charter school, top officials at the city’s Department of Education move heaven and earth to meet her demands.
During the past two years, the DOE gave Moskowitz’s controversial chain, Success Academy, rent-free space in city school buildings to open 14 new co-location sites. In each handover, Moskowitz demanded the DOE deliver the space clear of furniture and broom-swept by 5 p.m. on the last day of the school year, according to sources and emails obtained by DNAinfo New York.
But since students used the space until the second-to-last day of the school year, the DOE was left with less than 36 hours to clear the area — costing the department tens of thousands of dollars in overtime from contracted workers scrambling to meet the onerous deadline.
“The cost was astronomical,” a DOE insider told DNAinfo New York. “We don’t have to do it the very last day of school. There’s absolutely no need for this.”
The high-octane moves, insiders say, show the preferential treatment that DOE officials — including deputy schools chancellor Kathleen Grimm — give Success Academy, whose 22 schools serve just 6,700 of the city’s 1.1 million students.
Emails obtained by DNAinfo highlight the special relationship the high-profile school leader has with the DOE.
John Shea, the DOE's chief executive of the school facilities division, emphasized in a May 17, 2012 message to his subordinates the importance of meeting Moskowitz's deadline.
“What I need from you all is that, if it looks like a principal will not be out of these rooms by 6/29 [the last day of the 2011-12 school year], someone needs to tell me,” Shea wrote. “Kathleen [Grimm] volunteered to call principals who play games with vacating. But I need to know ahead of time — not Monday, July 2. Eva will start calling me Saturday morning if rooms aren’t empty.”
A former city councilwoman who chaired the council’s education committee, Moskowitz founded Success Academy in 2006. In the last few years, she has opened schools in Williamsburg, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Harlem, Union Square and elsewhere. Each school shares space with public schools.
Admirers have lauded the chain for turning out high-performing students and for being a juggernaut fundraiser. Critics have complained that Success Academy uses disciplinary tactics that weed out special-needs students and have fumed that the well-funded chain doesn't deserve free rent.
Moskowitz's high salary and brusque manner have also made her a polarizing figure. But the special connection she has to DOE brass is what really irks her peers and critics.
Her unparalleled access was on display when she rattled off an email at 7:02 a.m. on June 28 — the last day of that 2012-13 year — to Grimm, Shea and Thomas Taratko, the executive director of the department’s office of space planning.
Success Academy was getting space in eight DOE buildings to open schools. Moskowitz reminded the DOE officials that they needed to have each space cleared by the end of the day.
“As you know we will move stuff if it is not out by 5 p.m. as the agreed upon time [and] date when all stuff is removed,” Moskowitz wrote. “We have been discussing for months!!!”
“Let’s avoid the sequel to movegate 2,” she added, referring to the 2010-11 school year, when the DOE didn't meet her deadline.
Grimm responded two and a half hours later, saying her team was monitoring the moves.
Success Academy administrators kept tabs on the schools throughout the day, as scores of DOE-contracted movers cleared desks, chairs, student cubbies, computers and boxes of belongings and placed them in storage.
By 5:05 p.m., Success Academy director Kris Cheung emailed Shea, Taratko and Grimm to commend them on the progress of the moves. But Cheung also highlighted two spaces — a school building in Bedford-Stuyvesant and one in Crown Heights — that still had furniture in classrooms and lockers in the hallway.
Grimm responded three minutes later asking for an update from Shea, who in turn emailed his top lieutenants to make sure the moves were under control. The work crews eventually cleared the remaining furniture that night.
Clearing space at the eight locations cost the city $124,000 in the 2012-13 school year, sources say.
The DOE refers to the moves as school restructurings. In total, the DOE spent $1.4 million on restructurings — for public and charter schools — at 153 locations during the 2012-13 school year, according to records obtained by DNAinfo. That means clearing space for Success Academy at the eight sites accounted for 9 percent of the total costs.
At the end of the 2011-12 school year, Success Academy received space in six DOE school buildings. That year the DOE shelled out $125,000 to make room for the chain under the same deadline. The total cost of school restructurings for that year was $1.6 million.
Education Department sources said that in each school year, clearing space for Success Academy could have been done for half the amount if the work were spread out over a few days, eliminating the need for extra manpower and overtime. The DOE could have then spent the saved money on fixing up schools, the sources said.
“All of this takes away from repair work, our core mission,” a source said.
Success Academy wants the speedy space clearings so its construction team can quickly begin construction.
“The earlier move date and meeting the move deadline allows us to do all the building work so we can start our school year on the right foot,” Moskowitz wrote in an email to Grimm after a successful move one year.
However, Success Academy construction crews don’t enter the school until after July 4, meaning the DOE really has a few days to pull off the moves, sources said. Also no other charter school gets to move into a new space so early, according to sources.
When Bill De Blasio becomes mayor on Jan. 1, Success Academy may lose its favored status in Tweed Hall. De Blasio has criticized the Bloomberg administration’s special treatment of the charter chain and has said he wants Moskowitz to start paying rent for DOE space.
But with just weeks to go in Mayor Bloomberg’s term, DOE officials are working to arrange speedy move-ins for Success Academy in at least four schools in June 2014, according to sources.
Normally, DOE officials hold meetings on making space for Success Academy in the spring. This year, they started meetings in November, sources said.
Shea also recently approved the promotion of a Moskowitz-friendly DOE deputy facilities manager to director of schools facilities for northern Brooklyn, sources said.
Joseph Lazarus was chosen for the position, even though other in-house candidates had more experience and qualifications, sources said. Before his promotion, Lazarus was a deputy facilities manager for schools on the northwest side of Manhattan, where he was known for helping Success Academy schools get extra resources for repair work.
Lazarus did not respond to a request for comment.
The Education Department and Success Academy also did not respond to requests for comment.