DOE dropping school closure plan that drew UFT, parent lawsuit

The Department of Education is dropping its bid to close three zoned elementary schools and replace them with charter schools, GothamSchools has learned.

School officials informed the schools today about their uncharacteristic about face, which comes a week after the teachers union and a group of parents sued the DOE on the grounds that the plan to close the elementary schools represented an illegal alteration of zone lines.

The three schools, PS 241 and PS 194 in Harlem and PS 150 in Brownsville, will enroll new students in the fall, John White, director of the department’s portfolio office, confirmed. The DOE will phase out middle school grades at PS 241 and PS 150 as planned, White said, because the districts where those schools are located do not have zoned middle schools.

White emphasized that parents will still be able to choose to send their children to charter schools. All of the charter schools that were supposed to replace the zoned elementary schools will continue to expand inside DOE space, he said. The charter schools will either share space with the existing elementary schools, as in the case of PS 150, which is getting two schools that are part of the Uncommon Schools network, or they will remain in their current spaces. The latter option is possible for Harlem Success Academy 2, which is currently located inside PS 123.

White said the department made its decision because the lawsuit left parents unsure of which schools would be open next year. “Rather than continue to confuse them through this lawsuit, which is hanging over the process, we know that they will be given all of these options choose the one that will be best for them,” he said.

Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, who represents Manhattan and had criticized the department’s decision to shutter the schools, said he was pleased to hear the news from Micah Lasher, the department’s chief lobbyist, in a voice message today. He said he suspects politics played a role in the decision. “Obviously there’s a mayoral election this year and the question of mayoral control before the state legislature – those are not the best circumstances to be losing a lawsuit about notification of parental involvement,” O’Donnell said in a phone interview.

Jennifer Freeman, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said an elected official involved in the case told her today that the zoned school in her district, PS 241 in Harlem, would not close as was announced in December. She said she is concerned that the schools could still share space with charter schools.

“As far as we’re concerned, that’s still problematic,” Freeman said, because the DOE did not involve the elected parent council in the decision to site the school there, she said. She said her purpose in joining the lawsuit was to push the DOE to follow state laws requiring community input in decisions about school siting and other matters.

“To stop something that is clearly illegal feels good,” Freeman said. “But as far as the overall direction of giving more voice to communities, it’s just a little baby step.”

White emphasized the point that originally led the department to close the zoned schools: More students who live in the schools’ zones already choose to attend charter schools than the existing public schools. He said that only seven kindergartners from the zone enrolled at PS 241 in Harlem this year, whereas Harlem Success Academy, which was slated to replace PS 241, has already received applications from four times that number of children who live in the zone.

UPDATE: Union president Randi Weingarten, a plaintiff in the case, told me in an interview this evening that she is pleased with the decision. “The bottom line is that the school system has the obligation to provide a public school, not just a public charter school, but a public school that a kid is entitled to go to – not that a kid has a lottery to go to but that a kid is entitled to go to,” she said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the school that had only seven kindergarteners enroll this year. The school is PS 241.