filling in the blanks

Arbitrator: City used "circular reasoning" to justify turnarounds

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s testimony before an arbitrator drove one nail into the coffin of the city’s plans to replace or rehire teachers at 24 “turnaround” schools.

Last week an arbitrator determined that the city violated the city’s contracts with the teachers and principals unions when it moved to replace staff members at the schools. This afternoon the arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, released a detailed explanation of why he ruled the way he did.

The city was trying to use hiring procedures set for closing schools and their replacements. But the unions argued that the turnaround plans were “sham closures” that would not result in new schools. Instead, they argued, the city was unfairly using contractual provisions about “excessing” to remove teachers and administrators it deemed unsatisfactory.

In upholding the unions’ grievance, Buchheit at times turns Bloomberg’s and other city officials’ words against them.

He quotes a 2011 memorandum written by the Department of Education’s chief financial officer, which said, “excessing is not a permissible way to deal with unsatisfactory teachers.”

Yet city officials said they intended to do just that from the start of the turnaround process, Buchheit determined.

When he first announced the turnaround plans during his State of the City Address in January, Bloomberg “repeatedly made clear that the DOE’s new plan concerning the 24 (then 33) schools was based upon the desire to change staffing in the classroom,” Buchheit writes. He quotes Bloomberg saying, “Under this process, the best teachers stay; the least effective go.”

The arbitrator notes that Bloomberg has frequently expressed his distaste for the current process for shedding teachers from schools that are contracting, which is based on seniority, not job performance. “Suffice it to say that at the arbitration hearing the Mayor reaffirmed his dislike,” Buchheit writes.

Buchheit emphasized that he was not passing judgment on the value of the city’s plans for the schools, which State Education Commissioner John King approved in late June. And he said nothing in his decision would prevent the city from continuing with portions of the plans that do not involve using the hiring rules that take effect when schools are closed.

Those rules, outlined in a clause in the teachers union contract known as 18D, call for closing schools to set up hiring committees to review current teachers who apply for jobs at the replacement schools. According to 18D, the committees must hire back at least half of them of the qualified applicants from each school. City officials and school administrators began carrying out 18D procedures in the 24 schools last month with the understanding that the arbitrator could ultimately reverse it.

Department of Education officials had said they were confident that King’s approval of the reform plans would prove that the 24 schools were truly being closed. But Buchheit said King’s decision did not necessarily mean the schools were being closed and replaced with new schools. “New,” he said, typically means “never existing before,” which would not be the case for the 24 schools.

“The evidence here establishes that much would remain the same in the 24 new schools,” he wrote, including the schools’ buildings, student populations, courses, partnering organizations, and, for 18 of them, their principals. He also noted that many of the schools’ new names would still contain the old names, such as August Martin High School, which would change to “The School of Opportunities at the August Martin Campus.”

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg also suggested that the school closings were inauthentic, the arbitrator concludes, when he wrote in a memorandum to principals shortly after Bloomberg’s speech explaining that their schools would be closed “as a technical matter.”

For the schools to be truly new, Buchheit says, much would have to change, including their overall educational visions and leadership. Instead, the biggest change the city cited was the planned staffing change — but that change could only happen, he notes, if the schools were new.

“The DOE cannot use the end result of Article 18D being invoked as justification for why it is permitted to invoke 18D,” Buchheit writes. “I cannot adopt this circular reasoning for the purposes of contract interpretation.”

On Monday, Bloomberg said the city would appeal Buchheit’s ruling because the arbitrator had not yet explained his rationale. But after reading the opinion, city attorney Georgia Pestana said the city will not withdraw its appeal, which it filed in State Supreme Court on Monday. “The arbitrator clearly exceeded his authority,” she said.

The city had argued that the unions’ grievances were not arbitrable at all. In his opinion, Buchheit rejects each of the city’s three arguments for why the grievance should not be subject to binding arbitration.

Buchheit’s full decision is below:

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”