While a state Supreme Court judge rejected an attempt by the teachers’ union to halt the closures of 22 schools, including Jamaica and Beach Channel high schools, borough legislators and union leaders are holding out hope that continued litigation could result in a reformed city Department of Education — and, they said, even change the city’s plans to shutter the institutions.
State Supreme Court Justice Paul Feinman late last Thursday night denied the United Federation of Teachers’ and NAACP’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have temporarily stopped the city’s plans to close the institutions that city officials say have low graduation rates and test scores. The injunction also would have halted city plans to co-locate or expand 18 charter schools at public schools throughout the city.
Despite the elation felt by DOE officials —the move was hailed as a victory for students by schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and many other city personnel who celebrated the decision at a bar in Tribeca on Friday night —co-petitioners in the suit emphasized Feinman did not entirely dismiss the suit. The judge did not address the portion of the lawsuit that states the school closures and co-locations would create inequities in education, and many of those who filed the suit said they expected Feinman to soon rule on that.
“Should the judge rule down the line that part of the lawsuit is correct, things could stop immediately,” state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said of the city’s plans to close the schools.
But city officials for now have the green light from the judge to move ahead with their plans to phase out the schools — meaning close them over several years, which they originally set out to do last year. The UFT and NAACP filed a previous lawsuit in January 2010 following the city’s announcement it planned to shut down 19 schools, including Jamaica and Beach Channel. A state Supreme Court judge in March 2010 temporarily barred the closures, saying the city had not provided enough information detailing the impact the move would have on the surrounding communities.
The most recent suit asserts the DOE ignored agreements it had reached as part of last year’s litigation to provide specific assistance to help many of the schools it tried to close last year — an argument made time and again by educators and students at Jamaica and Beach Channel high schools.
This time around, Feinman said the move to grant the injunction would have hurt students.
“If the failing public schools are not closed, students may be subject to substandard educational environments which will obviously cause them to be considerably harmed,” Feinman wrote in his decision
Walcott, who lives in southeast Queens and has championed Mayor Bloomberg’s emphasis on closing large schools and replacing them with smaller institutions, was pleased with the judge’s announcement.
“I am incredibly heartened by the court’s decision,” Walcott said in a prepared statement. “From the beginning of the Bloomberg administration, we have said that a primary focus of our reform efforts would be to phase out schools that have failed our children year after year, and offer families new, high-quality options. … I know this decision will come as great comfort and relief to the thousands of children who have been in limbo, wondering what the outcome of this case would be, and for that I am very happy.”
UFT President Michael Mulgrew had a different take on the ruling.
“If there is any shame in this matter, it belongs to the mayor and the administration that sat back and made no attempt to help schools and students that were struggling, an administration that favored charter schools while it ignored the needs of public school students,” Mulgrew said. “Judge Feinman’s decision affected only our request for an injunction rather than the underlying issues of inequity and broken promises on the part of the DOE. We look forward to the opportunity to defend these students’ interests as we vigorously pursue this case in court.”
Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) also said he was hopeful change will come once the judge rules on the remaining portion of the suit.
“While I am disappointed in Justice Feinman’s ruling, he did not dismiss the case entirely and litigation is not complete,” Wills said. “Our case is about fairness, due process and equality in the public school system for every student. I am confident that the other aspects of our case will prove to be successful.”
Regardless of what happens with the lawsuit, legislators said the city should ensure students at schools being phased out receive equal treatment as their peers, though they said they have little faith this will happen.
“We can all assume there will be no resources at Jamaica High School next year,” Avella said. “The 3,000 students affected by the proposed closing of Jamaica High School are like second class citizens because they’re not going to get anything. They’ve been forgotten by the DOE, chancellor and mayor. They’ll have no after-school programs, huge class sizes, no new computers. It’s a disgrace.”
Students and teachers at Jamaica High School have said because the city plans to close it, they have had to live with dwindling resources, including a reduced number of advanced placement courses, few after school activities and no new technology.
The judge’s decision came just hours after state Education Commissioner John King approved the city’s closure plans it submitted to the state for a number of the schools, including Jamaica and Beach Channel high schools.
The approval makes it possible for the city to receive $5 million in federal funds to help with the school closures and establish smaller schools in those buildings.
King emphasized the need for the city to support schools that take in pupils from the closing institutions.
“We want to ensure that schools receiving students who would otherwise have attended a phased out school are not negatively impacted as a result of their now enrolling an increased number of high-needs students,” the commissioner wrote in a letter to Walcott.