tried and true

Teachers union lawsuit takes aim at 22 school closures

For the second time in two years, the city teachers union is suing to stop the Bloomberg administration from closing schools and opening new ones in their place.

The union’s lawsuit, which it filed along with the NAACP and a host of elected officials and parents, challenges plans to close 22 of the 26 schools that education officials hope to phase out this year.

Last year, the union successfully stopped the city from closing 19 schools by persuading a State Supreme Court judge that the closures violated various requirements in the state’s education law. These ranged from not following the law about public notification of hearing dates to failing to failing to map out the predicted impact of school closures.

This year, the city took pains to follow public notification rules, beginning the process earlier in the year, and by last month, 26 schools had ended up on the chopping block.

Perhaps as a result, the United Federation of Teachers’ argument against closures this year is broader and more complicated. And unlike last year, the union is also seeking to prevent charter schools from moving into public school buildings, charging that the city did not prove the co-locations would be equitable.

“The department continues to insist that phase-outs and closures of schools and co-locating untested schools is the answer, while depriving the remaining students in those designated, 22 schools of the resources to succeed academically,” said Kenneth Cohen of the NAACP at a press conference this morning.

Chancellor Dennis Walcott — who said he learned about the suit not from UFT President Michael Mulgrew but from a reporter this morning — said he was “saddened” by the suit. As deputy mayor, Walcott decried the NAACP last year for its involvement in the school closure lawsuit because he said the group prevented the city from improving school choices.

“We totally disagree with the union,” Walcott said. “We have met the letter of the law and we will continue to meet the letter of the law as far as these schools are concerned.”

The new suit offers a suite of justifications for why the city’s plans should be stopped. It argues that the city did not keep its promises to help the schools that were originally slated to close last year avoid closure next year. Extra staff and support services that the city promised to provide in a settlement agreement with the union often did not surface, the suit alleges.

(In fact, academic performance at some schools on last year’s closure list has improved so much that the department did not try to close them again this year.)

The suit also argues that Panel for Educational Policy was wrong to approve charter school co-locations when the city had not provided enough information about the co-locations’ impact. And it charges that schools on the state’s lists of failing schools require state approval for closure — a step that has not been a public part of the closure process in recent memory.

This year’s lawsuit includes 15 of the 19 schools in last year’s suit and adds seven more. Four schools that are slated for closure this year are not included in the lawsuit. “These 22 were the strongest cases we have,”  said Dick Riley, a UFT spokesman.

Because the lawsuit comes so late in the school year, city officials say that it threatens to upend enrollment and space plans set to go into effect within months. Students have already been admitted to high schools, which make up 15 of the schools named in the lawsuit, and the 18 charter schools the union is seeking to limit have also admitted new students for next year.

“Students who have been accepted will have to wait and wonder,” Walcott said.

Walcott promised that the city would push hard to carry out its plans.

“We’re going to litigate it,” he said. “We will fight to make sure we’re going to phase out those schools.”

UFT School Closure Suit 2011

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”