By SHARON OTTERMAN | New York Times
March 26, 2010 -- A judge on Friday blocked the closing of 19 schools for poor performance, finding the city engaged in “significant violations” of the new state law governing mayoral control of city schools.
The ruling, a setback to one of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s signature education policies, means the city will have to start over in making its case to close the schools, this time, the judge wrote, with “meaningful community involvement.”
Unless the decision is overturned, it will most likely result in all the schools’ remaining open for at least another year. The law requires the closing process to begin at least six months before the start of the next school year.
The decision cleared the path for high school acceptance letters, which had been delayed because of the lawsuit, to go out to eighth graders around the city.
The decision, by Justice Joan B. Lobis of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, was a victory for the United Federation of Teachers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which joined more than a dozen elected leaders and parents in suing to stop the closings.
They argued that the city had failed to comply with the mayoral control law passed last year, which required the Department of Education to give detailed “educational-impact statements” describing the effect of each closing on students and surrounding schools.
Justice Lobis agreed with the plaintiffs’ contention that the department had issued boilerplate statements, which she found lacked “the detailed analysis that an impact statement mandates.” She found other procedural violations, including insufficient public notification before hearings.
“Today, the court has told the chancellor and the Department of Education that they are not above the law,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers’ union.
The response from the city was quick — disagreeing with the judge’s decision and the rationale behind it. It promised an appeal.
“My view is that you don’t send students to failing schools, schools that can’t provide them what they need,” the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, said. “The sad thing is that the union would bring a lawsuit to resign kids to failing schools in order to save jobs. And ultimately, that is what this is about.”
Mr. Klein argued that the city had included the public sufficiently in the process. “I think the process was robust,” he added. “We literally met with thousands of people who expressed their views. We heard them, and in the end, we disagreed.”
The schools that received at least a temporary reprieve included Jamaica High School and Beach Channel High School in Queens; Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx; Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn; and Norman Thomas High School in Manhattan, along with smaller schools, including the Global Enterprise High School in the Bronx and the high school grades of the Choir Academy of Harlem.
“We are thrilled,” said Christine Rowland, a teacher and the United Federation of Teachers’ representative at Columbus High School. “I think there’s a chance now. It was so hard for us to get anyone to listen in the very tight space of time we’ve had.”
The city has closed 91 schools since 2002, many of them large high schools, replacing them with clusters of smaller schools and charter schools in the old schools’ buildings. Mr. Bloomberg credits the closings with significantly improving graduation rates, which average over 70 percent at the small schools and 63 percent citywide.
When a school closes, current students are allowed to stay until graduation, but no new classes are admitted.
The moves have always generated controversy, particularly when schools proposed for closing had shown some progress. For example, 12 of the schools scheduled to close this year received a grade of “proficient” on their last city quality review, and hundreds of students and alumni citywide spoke out in favor of effective programs at the closing schools, like one devised for mothers and pregnant teenagers at Robeson that offers day care and teaches parenting skills.
The judge wrote that the impact statement for Robeson, for example, did not say where young mothers in Brooklyn could find similar programs. This year, for the first time, the mayoral control law required a significant public role in closing decisions, requiring hearings, detailed statements of how the closings would affect the communities and a vote by the Panel for Educational Policy before the decisions were final.
On Jan. 26, the panel, which is controlled by the mayor, affirmed all 19 closings after nine hours of angry public comment from hundreds of teachers, students and parents.
Justice Lobis, who voided the panel’s decision, said the new law “created a public process with meaningful community involvement regarding the chancellor’s proposals.” The entire mayoral control law, she wrote, “must be enforced, not merely the portion extending mayoral control of the schools.”
While the ruling was a defeat for the mayor and the chancellor, it did not dispute the city’s right to close the schools or assert that the schools, which often have low graduation rates, were worth saving.
The city had argued in court that any violations of the law were too minor to warrant overturning the closings. Mr. Klein said Friday that he stood by his decision and that the ruling would not change his commitment to close the schools, and others. Mr. Bloomberg has vowed to close the lowest 10 percent of schools by the end of his term.
The lawsuit had held up some 85,000 high school acceptance letters that were due out on Wednesday. The city’s interpretation of the ruling is that it clears the way for all those letters to go out next week, although the plaintiffs disagree.
Students were required to state their high school preferences in early December, around the time the department began to reveal which schools it wanted to close. About 8,500 applied to the schools proposed for closing and were notified later that they could not attend them. Those students will receive acceptance letters from other schools next week, along with a note saying that they could revert to their original choice if the school remains open.
Destiny Donaldson, 13, an eighth grader at Frank D. Whalen Middle School in the Bronx, applied to Columbus and said that when she got a letter saying the school was no longer accepting new ninth graders, “I cried.”
“I thought it was wrong. I always wanted to go there. My friend went there and she went on to college.”
Nate Schweber contributed reporting.