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Queens Chronicle

Unions sue city to stop school closures

Argue Bloomberg cannot replace staff at 24 schools — 7 in Queens

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Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 10:49 am, Thu May 17, 2012.

The United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators filed a lawsuit this week to stop the city’s plan to shutter and restaff 24 city schools by next September, including seven in Queens, saying it amounts to “sham closings” and violates labor contracts.

The Panel for Educational Policy voted last week to approve Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to shut the schools at the end of June and reopen them when classes begin in September with new names, up to half the teachers replaced and possibly other principals.

Essentially, the UFT and the CSA, the latter of which represents principals, argue in the suit filed in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Monday that the plans for the 24 schools do not amount to closure, and therefore the city cannot use current contract provisions to restaff them because the labor agreement only regulates situations that involve closing facilities.

“These sham closings are an attempt by the Department of Education to evade its duty to help these struggling schools succeed,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew and CSA President Ernest Logan said in a prepared statement. “We are asking the court to ensure that no final decisions are made on the staffing of these schools, pending an independent review by an arbitrator on the issue of whether the DOE is trying to get around its labor agreements.”

The seven Queens schools targeted in the city’s plan include August Martin High School in Jamaica, Bryant High School in Long Island City, Flushing High School, John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Long Island City High School, Newtown High School in Elmhurst and Richmond Hill High School. These seven schools, and 17 others around the city, have been in a federal improvement program because of such issues as low graduation rates and test scores.

While the UFT and the CSA argue that the city is not actually closing the schools and is basically opening the same facilities, with many of the same students and similar programs, the city disagreed and said its plans were to shutter the facilities, making it legal to seek to replace up to half the teachers at each of the schools.

“The UFT and CSA have shown that they would rather leave our students’ futures to the courts than do the difficult work of turning around failing schools and giving students the education they deserve,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a prepared statement. “We have already begun preparations to open these 24 new schools next fall, training their leadership teams and holding productive meetings with the UFT to begin the process of staffing the new schools. Sadly, today’s lawsuit could have damaging consequences for that process, jeopardizing the creation of exciting new schools with new programs, teachers and leadership structures.”

Queens students, parents, educators and legislators have criticized the city’s plans, saying they have disrupted pupils’ lives.

Juniors, for example, said they are concerned about finding teachers to write them letters of recommendation for college if the educators they know are replaced, and other students said they are worried successful programs, such as robotics and culinary courses, could be axed if the educators who run them are no longer employed at the school.

The city has said successful programs will remain, and it plans to add new ones to the mix.

UFT officials, as well as a number of Queens individuals —including Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the borough president’s appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy —have criticized the way the city went about implementing the plan.

Originally, Bloomberg announced in his State of the City address in January that he wanted to close and reopen 33 schools — whittled down to the current 24 — all of which have been in a federal program for institutions placed on the state’s “Persistently Low Achieving” list. He argued the move was an attempt to secure about $58 million in federal funding, which the state, which controls access to the money, had withheld because the city and the UFT had not reached an agreement on annual teacher evaluations.

Bloomberg then announced he would attempt to land the funding by implementing the more aggressive federal “turnaround” program, which, unlike the other federal programs that had been in place, does not require an agreement on teacher evaluations.

Fedkowskyj, among many others, said the schools should be allowed to continue with their non-turnaround programs — which, for example, partnered the institutions with educational nonprofits that helped them with graduation rates — because they had just begun at the schools in September and had been expected to run for three years. Already, Fedkowskyj said, the schools had begun to see progress since September.

Additionally, legislators like Councilmen Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) have pointed out that the city may not be able to land that $58 million in federal funding because one, the state still needs to approve the plans, and two, if they are approved, the DOE has said it may not replace half the teachers at the schools.

Federal regulations bar schools from taking back more than half of their former educators, if they want to receive the funding from Washington. However, city officials have said they are not necessarily aiming to replace half of the educators at the schools —most of whom would remain in the system and enter the large pool of substitute teachers. The city would continue to pay the individuals, which the unions estimate would cost the city more than the $58 million it could receive.

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