Walcott: Turnaround will happen even without federal funding

When members of the Panel for Educational Policy vote on more than two dozen school closure proposals later this month, they won’t know whether the city will get federal dollars to fund the schools that replace them.

Speaking to state lawmakers today, Education Commissioner John King said he does not plan to respond to the city’s applications for federal School Improvement Grants until “early June” — well over a month after the PEP is scheduled to vote on closure plans for 26 schools. The panel has never rejected a city proposal.

The closures are part of an overhaul process known as “turnaround” that the city devised in large part to win the funds. When Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans in his State of the City speech in January, he cited the availability of the federal funds — about $2 million per school each year — as a key motivator.

But lately, the city’s rhetoric has changed. When the Department of Education published details about its school closure plans last month, it explained that the turnarounds would happen with or without the federal dollars. Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg also told GothamSchools that new principals wouldn’t have to replace half of their staffs when the schools reopened, a provision that could disqualify the schools from receiving SIG grants.

Walcott told reporters at the hearing today that closure was the best move forward for the 26 low-rated schools with or without the supplemental grants. The schools are eligible for more than $150 million over a three-year period, but Walcott said the city’s plans could be implemented without the extra funding.

“If we have the money, that’s great,” he said. “But money should not drive policy. The policy should be, how do we benefit the students in the long run, and that’s my overall goal.”

State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan said the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the city and state’s implementation of federally funded reform initiatives, including the $700 million Race to the Top program, was the main reason that she called King and Walcott to testify at today’s hearing.

“I think there is a lot of anxious concern among people in these school communities about the ability to carry out these plans,” said Nolan, whose own alma mater, Grover Cleveland High School, is among those on the chopping block.

Parents, students, and elected officials have questioned the city’s ability to implement such a large-scale reform in a short window of time at dozens of protests and press conferences since January. They have raised a host of questions about how the city would be able to recruit students and hire new teachers to schools that still have no names, or how new academic programs could be created and developed in a matter of months.

“It will not be a smooth transition with all that is involved,” said Carmine Pulera, a teacher at Grover Cleveland. “The logistics, the uncertainty around money — it’s just too much work, and emotionally, it’s extremely draining.”

Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Assemblyman whose district includes Lehman High School, one of 26 schools slated to be closed, criticized the city’s plan as being largely a political one “based on a frustration with the teachers union that [they] couldn’t come into agreement with.”

“[Bloomberg] has turned to this turnaround to punish the union,” Benedetto said. “It calls into question the very rational of why so many schools are being targeted.”

The city has not released details about the contents of its SIG applications, and state and city officials have declined to share specifics while the applications are being assessed.

“They are submitted as, essentially, a draft,” King said. “We review them, we ask the city to make changes, and so there’s a back and forth that happens with the districts.”

Nolan said she would file a Freedom of Information Law request to see the applications. Meanwhile, public hearings for the school closures will pick up next week. A total of nine schools will host public hearings.