Union may take effort to stop school closures to Albany

In the opening shot of this year’s battle over the city’s plan to close 26 schools, teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew vowed to take the fight all the way to Albany.

State law gives the city ample leeway to close schools, and the union’s successful lawsuit that last year blocked the city from closing 19 schools was based primarily on process questions rather than a policy challenge.

This year, Mulgrew said, the union plans to fight to change the policy and will lobby for changes to the law if necessary.

In the first of what he vowed would be many protests, Mulgrew accused city officials of neglecting their responsibilities to help schools improve.

“Their job is not to sit back and monitor data,” Mulgrew said. “Their job is to come in and say, ‘what can we do?'”

Teachers from across the city rallied outside the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse, with the protest beginning on Chambers Street and spilling around the corner onto Broadway.

Mulgrew criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his aggressive school closure policies, which the union president characterized as “bragging” about how many schools the city has shut down. In a speech last year, the mayor promised to shutter the lowest-performing 10 percent of city schools.

“The only way to do that is to sit back and not give the schools the support they need,” Mulgrew said.

City officials have tried to do a more thorough job than they did last year of documenting the schools’ struggles and meeting with parents and school staff to explain their rationale for closing the schools. For example, city officials distributed fact sheets about the efforts the city has already made to improve the school.

But a teacher from one of the schools slated to close, the Monroe Academy for Business and Law, disputed the city’s argument that it has tried to help the school.

“It was more a lie sheet than a fact sheet,” the teacher said, arguing that the city has not provided the leadership or community support that it claims.

Jerome Moore, a senior at Franklin Lane High School, which will graduate its last class this year, said that the city’s policy of phasing out schools hurts the students already attending them.

“During my junior year, we lost valuable teachers, valuable classes, valuable resources,” Moore said. “They expected us to just deal with the closings and not give us any resources.”

Some of the teachers at the rally came from large high schools that the city has not slated for closure, but said that their schools suffer when the city closes nearby schools and the city’s most struggling students move to other large schools.

“I’m concerned that they’re going to try to close all of our schools sooner or later,” said Dino Sferrazza, a teacher at Benjamin Cardozo High School in Queens.

“It’s hard to understand why the UFT would be against replacing the worst of the worst schools unless they’re simply interested in keeping jobs for their members rather than doing what’s best for our kids,” said Department of Education spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld. “We’ve turned around many struggling schools in the past, but sometimes schools simply cannot be fixed, and communities deserve new schools with strong leadership and good teaching.”

The battle over school closures will be one of the first challenges that face incoming schools chancellor Cathie Black. Yesterday, Black and Mulgrew sat down formally for the first time, in a 45-minute meeting at the UFT headquarters in lower Manhattan that both characterized as a good conversation.

“Obviously we have a lot of work to do,” Mulgrew said. “I wait to judge people on their actions.”