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Carranza's tenure in NYC started out rough and only got rougher

 
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02/26/2021 07:47 PM EST

From the beginning of Richard Carranza’s tenure as head of the biggest school system in America, things haven’t been easy.

He started out as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second choice after Miami schools chief Alberto Carvalho turned down the job in a tortuous televised school board meeting in 2018. From there, Carranza headed into the buzz saw of city education politics, where his stated mission to diversify one of the most segregated school systems in the country drew no end of political opposition and a catalog of racial epithets that persisted even to Friday, when he announced his departure.

The mayor and the chancellor’s disparate approaches to diversifying schools was immediately noticeable. De Blasio rarely if ever even used the word “segregation” in his first term. In the early months of his tenure, Carranza declared the city’s public schools “the most segregated school system I’ve ever seen.”

The chancellor quickly butted heads with Asian American parents and groups when he tried to reform admissions at the city’s elite specialized high schools — an effort that drew well-funded opposition and ultimately stalled.

And Carranza, who is of Mexican descent, was subjected to ongoing racist attacks as detractors told him to “go back to where [he] came from,” referring to him as “Taco-eating Carranza” among other comments.

Then in March of last year, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. The city shuttered schools, sending 1.1 million students into the unknown of remote learning with hundreds of thousands students initially left without computers or internet access. The coronavirus claimed the lives of at least 85 Department of Education employees. Carranza himself lost 11 friends and family members, he tearfully reported Friday morning, saying that was one reason he felt he needed to step down.

"I know the pandemic has not been easy for you or for any New Yorker. And make no mistake, I am a New Yorker. While not by birth, by choice,” he said. “A New Yorker who has lost — a New Yorker who has lost 11 family and close childhood friends to this pandemic and a New Yorker who, quite frankly, needs to take time to grieve.”

But multiple sources familiar with the inner workings of the de Blasio administration said Carranza’s and de Blasio’s relationship had soured over personality differences as well as disagreements over school integration — and a recent fight over scrapping gifted and talented admissions tests that critics say put Black and Hispanic students at a disadvantage was the final straw.

The mayor wanted to administer the test for one more year amid the pandemic, but Carranza refused, drafting a resignation letter following the meeting but not quitting just yet, one source said. The test was ultimately scrapped anyway when the Panel for Educational Policy — the DOE’s governing body — voted down an extension of the testing contract.

“It came to the forefront with … this debacle on gifted and talented which should have been addressed and which the chancellor was interested in addressing way earlier in the mayor's tenure, and it didn't go anywhere,” said one source familiar with the tensions. “I think he just got worn down, banging his head on the gates of City Hall.”

Another administration source said de Blasio and Carranza never really clicked.

“He loses faith in people that he doesn’t have an instant rapport with,” the source said of de Blasio. “And then he stops talking to them.”

Vanessa Leung, one of the mayor’s appointees to the Panel for Educational Policy, also said Carranza and de Blasio were on different timelines.

"I think the mayor was hoping to get the full city to believe that our public school system does not need to be a scarce commodity that people have to compete for,” Leung said of he gifted and talented programs. “I think his timeline for doing that was … much longer than the chancellor's."

Leung, who voted to reject the testing contract, said there was always a plan to move away from the test and that a reworking of the process was supposed to occur last year. The pandemic, she said, threw a wrench into those plans — Carranza and de Blasio seemed to disagree on how to address the gifted and talented program in the midst of a partial shutdown.

“I think they saw different avenues going forward,” she said.

An administration source told POLITICO that de Blasio genuinely wants admission reform, but didn’t have the stomach for the political fight that entails.

“I wouldn’t say he doesn’t care about it. He just wants to be liked,” the person said.

De Blasio denied any tensions with Carranza over desegregation efforts.

“Totally inaccurate, just blatantly inaccurate,” he said on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." “This is a man who's been through hell this last year, and he and I talked about it many times and, you know, he chose today to make it public, but this has been going on for a long time.”

Asked by POLITICO to comment on the tensions, which were first reported by The New York Times, Carranza was less definitive in his interpretation of events. While he praised the mayor’s work, he did not appear to deny there were differences.

“Policy is never made in a perfect four-corner box where everybody automatically says, yes, this is a piece of cake and I'm going to love it, and I think what I have appreciated about this mayor is that he has allowed all of us at the table to have differing views and to argue those views and to advocate those views and come to a consensus,” Carranza said.

Asked where he’s headed next and why he’s leaving so early, he said “there’s never a perfect time.”

Carranza pointed to accomplishments such as reducing suspensions and racial disparities in discipline and implementing a restorative justice approach, pushing culturally responsive education, and a temporary suspension of middle screens.

But perhaps his biggest feat was returning kids to classrooms, at least partially, before any other big city in America. The United Federation of Teachers, the city's teachers union, commended Carranza for working with them on reopening — and gave a sideways jab to de Blasio, in a statement today.

“Richard Carranza was a real partner in our efforts to open school safely," union president Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. "Too often he had to fight behind the scenes to keep the needs of students, staff and their families ahead of politics. We wish him well. He will be missed.”

City Council education chair Mark Treyger said it was “very clear” that there were some major disagreements between the chancellor and the mayor.

“When you appoint a chancellor, you appoint someone in that role, you have to allow the education department to make decisions,” Treyger said. “I feel that there were substantial amounts of interference that I think that the chancellor was dealing with on top of everything he is dealing with in his personal life and running the school system during this pandemic.”

During budget negotiations, Treyger said, the mayor was asking Carranza and his team to reopen the school system in the middle of the pandemic with cuts to the DOE budget.

“There really was no consultation and collaboration about these decisions and I felt the chancellor deserved better than that,” he said.

Meisha Porter, who has been an executive superintendent in the Bronx, will take over as chancellor as of March 15 — the first Black woman to helm the department.

She said she will do “everything” to reopen schools, beginning with high schools, as well as expand learning opportunities and address trauma and academic needs.

“The reality is, you know, segregation exists and I'm not going to shy away from the importance of really looking at the inequities around admissions processes and really pushing forward for ways we can create opportunities and access for all students across New York City,” she said.

In a statement, Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education, and Natasha Capers, director of the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice, criticized de Blasio for dragging his feet on culturally responsive education as well as tackling school segregation issues.

They urged him to provide “clear and public support” for Porter and “denounce those who may attack her.”

“As Chancellor, Meisha Porter will be tasked with continuing the work begun by her predecessor to make the city’s schools more equitable and champion its neediest students,” they said in a statement. “She will face many of the same challenges: we know that the vehement attacks and opposition that Chancellor Carranza experienced as a man of color in this position will not stop with his departure, and that they may be directed at Meisha Porter, a Black woman, tenfold.”

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