As her marriage was unraveling, Ross was plotting her advance on New York City. Finally, last spring, her people were ready to hit the Pentecostal iglesias and community centers of the Lower East Side to spread the word about her new charter school.
Mrs. Ross was restless: Chancellor Klein had promised her space at the nest+m school, the warm, welcoming acronym for New Explorations Into Science, Technology, and Math. The Nesters claimed that the reduction of classrooms in their designated gifted-and-talented school would increase their class sizes. They expressed concern over how the Ross Global kids who would share the building might “comport themselves.” It was easy to call the Nesters racist, as more than 50 percent of the students are white. But a trait of new charter schools nobody likes to discuss is the idea that the upper grades are sometimes stocked with kids who have bombed out of other schools or have just been “passed through the system.”
The Nesters liked to insinuate that Mrs. Ross and Joel Klein are personal friends, members of the same Hamptons clubs, and that Mrs. Ross has served on some boards with Klein’s hyperconnected wife, Sony’s general counsel Nicole Seligman. (“All untrue,” says a Klein spokesman.) Still, people talk about Klein’s ambitions to be mayor, and charter schools as a cause puts him in contact with the city’s deepest pockets.
In the midst of the protests last year, Mrs. Ross toured the school, expressing her preference for the classrooms on the east side. The Nesters maintained these were best ones, the best lit, overlooking the trees (all three of them). Mrs. Ross’s architect was measuring rooms with some ray-gun thingie, “and one of her little photo slaves was taking millions of pictures,” says Emily Armstrong, the PTA’s then-president.
This being New York City, the PTA took the Department of Education to court. When it came time for Mrs. Ross’s lottery, she arrived at what is locally known as the Chinatown YMCA—to an ambush. Children were screaming, parents were cursing and throwing water. toss ross posters thrust in the air depicted Mrs. Ross done up as Cruella De Vil or wearing a little Hitler scribble-mustache. (The Nesters called her an anti-Semite when she expressed her wish to conduct school on Saturdays, a common charter practice.) Klein has since cracked a few heads at nest+m, replacing the principal. After the Department of Education sent investigators to audit the PTA, its ringleaders resigned.
Reached by phone in the PTA’s office, Emily Armstrong was photocopying whatever she could get her hands on. “They’re treating us like Enron,” she said. Sitting just outside were men from the city’s Office of Investigations, wearing black trench coats. “Like the Gestapo!” screeched the PTA’s now-former executive vice-president Lou Gasco.
By June, Klein caved, and offered Mrs. Ross space in his building, the Tweed Courthouse. But Tweed had its own problems. Mrs. Ross had only about three weeks to get the space ready for the first day of school after the prior tenant, City Hall Academy, evacuated, but then the construction workers were pulled to work on the 9/11 memorial. On the eve of the school’s opening, she was there helping to deliver things, assemble bookcases, unpack books, put chairs together at midnight. As awe-inspiring as the space is, it is not designed to be a school. DOE employees have license to traipse through the space, and the children are obliged to pass through metal detectors.
Mrs. Ross’s architects were summoned: They grappled with how to carve every room in two with soundproofed walls that couldn’t touch the ceilings so as not to deny any teacher light from the sash windows. But for the most part, the revamp has been poorly reviewed by its tenants: An L-shaped classroom is fine in a private school but not in a public school, where teachers are compelled to see every kid at all times. The inner sanctums with doughnut-shaped tables where the children could wander off and read—that was the theory, anyway—can’t be used unless the teacher is literally standing in there, too. There are too many “perversion pockets,” as these areas are known in the public-school-building field. Insiders deemed it a battle of aesthetics versus pedagogy.
“We’re in survival mode here,” says one employee, adding, “Frankly, I’d rather be in Africa with a dirt floor.”
Mrs. Ross brusquely told the staff to stop whining. By September, the thunderbolts were flying. Ross Global’s first principal, public-school veteran Jon Drescher, who was telling people that Mrs. Ross needed to let the mechanism of the school work and stop making all the decisions—“This is my fucking school,” she was known to scream—was diagnosed with the stress-related illness shingles. Drescher departed a couple of weeks before school started, informed that, among other things, Mrs. Ross was irritated by his insistence on going to visit his Westchester doctor during teacher orientation in East Hampton.