By Drew Carter and Sophia Morris SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — At a school board meeting in March, Tisha Edwards stood at a podium and answered questions from the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) Board of Education for more than an hour. The commissioners were curious about what Edwards had done during her time working with the district.
Edwards serves as the district’s Independent Monitor, a position created by New York Attorney General Eric Schneidman less than two years ago.
In July 2014, roughly eight months after beginning an investigation into student discipline in the SCSD, the New York State Office of the Attorney General (OAG) issued an “Assurance of Discontinuance” (AOD) to the district. The agreement requires the SCSD to examine discipline patterns — specifically, the rate at which black, hispanic, and disabled students are punished — across the schools.
In the 2014-2015 school year, black students accounted for 75 percent of disciplinary student hearings despite comprising less than half of the student population, according to Edwards’ report in October 2015.
A new Code of Conduct, Character and Support has been implemented across the District. This code was put in place to clarify the expectations of student behavior and the consequences of violating the code. According to the AOD, the new code better equips staff to deal with the consequences of code infractions and further disciplinary actions.
One of the 101 stipulations laid out in the AOD required the district to hire the Independent Monitor, who would “create a plan to conduct periodic reviews of the data, files, and records to assess compliance with the District’s policies and with this Assurance.”
The district hired Edwards to fill the role in November 2014. Edwards was a strong candidate for the job having served as the Interim Chief Executive Officer of the Baltimore City Public Schools, as well as a Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the CEO in Baltimore.
SCSD Superintendent Sharon Contreras, who was responsible for selecting the Independent Monitor, said Edwards’ experience “in a district that deals with the same issues that we have seemed to make her the best fit for the position.”
Contreras was also impressed by Edwards’ legal background. Edwards graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2001, and has worked as an attorney.
“I knew she would understand the legal implications of the AOD, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and I knew she would quickly learn New York state law,” Contreras said in a phone interview.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in publicly-funded activities, while the Individuals with Disabilities Act, passed in 2004, governs the way in which public agencies provide intervention to disabled children.
At the time of that meeting in March, Edwards had not been to any schools in the district. Now, she has visited Danforth, Corcoran, Dr. King, and Frazer schools, and will visit Lincoln, Delaware, Westside Academy at Blodgett, Clary, LeMoyne, and PSLA at Fowler.
Edwards did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.
“She reviews the data, and to make the most of her time and expertise, she then chose, with the district, the ten schools that have the most compliance issues,” Contreras said. “She’s visiting those schools now.”
“Her role is not to evaluate the district,” Contreras said. “It is to ensure that the leadership, which is Board of Education and the Superintendent, comply with all provisions within the AOD.”
“I’d prefer we didn’t have one,” Contreras said regarding the AOD. “But, since we do have one, I’m going to comply with it. That is my legal responsibility. But there’s no superintendent that wants to be under such an order.”
The AOD hasn’t cost the district any additional money because the investments account for Edwards’ position, according to Kate Skahen, comptroller for the SCSD. The required investments for this year totaled $3 million and the independent monitor’s position is budgeted into that.
During the 2014-2015 school year and with the timing of the assurance, the district was “able to realign the budget investment mid-year to meet the requirements of the AOD and have been able to carry that into the budget of 2015-2016 and hopefully the 2016-2017 year,” Skahen said.
Skahen believes that the district has been doing a good job of balancing the budget and as a result, the AOD hasn’t had an adverse affect.
Each year the district goes through a “process of prioritizing,” said Skahen. Not always, but sometimes, the district needs to decide whether or not to cut certain programs. According to Skahen, since the AOD has been put into place, they have not had to cut any programs.
“We go through the programs and make sure that they are operating effectively and make sure they are meeting the goals of the district. Sometimes some things are scaled back in that process,” said Skahen.
The impact of Edwards as independent monitor has turned out to work in favor for the district and has not impacted the budget as a result. Skahen saw the necessity for Edwards position within the district.
“We kind of look at it as things that are good for us to be doing anyway and they should be prioritized within the budget,” Skahen said.
Contreras echoed that sentiment. “Some of it is for teacher professional development,” the Superintendent said. “Some is for interventions that we should have been implementing all along, so it’s not just random activities or actions that the district should take.”
One position that may not be included in the budget would be Edwards’ suggestion of a “Ombuds Officer” at the school board meeting. This position would help Edwards oversee the other schools that are in need of transitioning into this new code of conduct.
The AOD does not list any specifics as to whether or not the Ombuds Officer will be factored into the budget, which could eventually become a concern for the SCSD.
Edwards will continue to provide periodic reports to the SCSD during her time as Independent Monitor. Her next report, which will summarize the 2015-16 school year and provide a 2016-17 monitoring plan, is scheduled for August 2016.