order in the court (updated)

Judge rules that city must reinstate staff at turnaround schools

Lawyers for the UFT spoke to reporters about the union's short-term court victory outside of New York State Supreme Court today.

Legal battles between the city and the United Federation of Teachers are typically long, drawn-out affairs. Not today.

In just 40 minutes this afternoon, Judge Joan Lobis of the New York State Supreme Court made up her mind about the city’s request to suspend an arbitrator’s ruling in the UFT’s favor while she considers the city’s formal appeal. There will be no restraining order, Lobis ruled.

That means that hiring and firing decisions that have been made at 24 struggling schools that the city was trying to overhaul will be reversed. The Department of Education will have to reinstate hundreds — and possibly thousands — of teachers and administrators cut loose from the schools as part of the “turnaround” process.

“They no longer have an excuse for not complying with the arbitrator’s award,” Ross said about the city.

Asked by reporters about the education department’s immediate plans for allowing the teachers to reclaim their positions, Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said, “Talk to the law department.”

The city’s top lawyer, Michael Cardozo, said in a statement that he was confident that Lobis would side with the city as the case moves forward.

The hearing was a first step in the city’s appeal of a ruling handed down two weeks ago by an arbitrator who found that the city’s hiring and firing decisions — a key aspect of the Department of Education’s turnaround plans — violated the city’s contract with the teachers union.

The city is arguing that the arbitrator overstepped his bounds and wants the entire decision overturned. But today’s court appearance dealt only with the question of whether the city could avoid reversing the hiring decisions before Lobis considers the broader appeal later this month. Her ruling means that it cannot.

To win an injunction, plaintiffs have to prove two things: that they would suffer “irreparable harm” while their case is pending and that they have a strong likelihood of ultimately winning their case.

Lobis said today that she didn’t find the department convincing on either point.

A city lawyer said holding up the turnaround process for any amount of time would “thwart” efforts to improve the schools. “This would undo everything the DOE has done thus far to improve these schools,” said the lawyer, Maxwell Leighton.

But Lobis questioned what harm would really befall the department if it must roll back its efforts for the few weeks before she considers the merits of its request to overturn the arbitrator’s ruling. If the city ultimately wins its case, she said, it could just tell teachers that their reinstatements had been reversed again.

“Maybe you’d have to rescind some letters. How is that irreparable harm?” Lobis asked.

That seems to be a unlikely possibility. The main plank of the city’s appeal is that the arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, did not actually have jurisdiction over the hiring processes.

Lobis pointed out that the department had agreed to let Buchheit rule on whether the staffing issue should be subject to arbitration at all, and he said that it was.

“Just because he said it doesn’t mean it’s true,” Maxwell told the judge.

City and union lawyers went before Lobis in late May after the unions sued to stop staffing processes underway at the 24 schools, and at her urging they agreed to have an independent arbitrator hear and rule on the case.

That decision alone makes the city very unlikely to win an appeal, according to a city attorney who specializes in labor relations.

“The courts place great deference on a decision made by an arbitrator, so the arbitrator can make decisions without fear of being overruled,” said Steven Landis. “If an agreement has been made to arbitrate, the court says, ‘Arbitrate it, don’t come to me.'”

What will happen tomorrow at the schools is not yet clear. But after the hearing concluded, a top union lawyer, Adam Ross, said union officials would “immediately” initiate conversations with the city about reinstating teachers and administrators who were told they could not return to their schools.

City officials did not immediately say whether they planned to engage in those conversations.

“Our goal is to turn around these failing schools and help our students succeed. We appreciate the judge setting an expedited schedule to hear our challenge to the arbitrator’s decision so that we can meet that goal,” Cardozo said in his statement. “The judge also made it clear that she wants to consider the case fully. We believe that, after she reviews our papers, she’ll conclude that the arbitrator was wrong.”

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.”