For the second time this school year, state education officials have taken a stand against the city Department of Education.

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills ruled last week that the DOE illegally changed a regulation about how schools involve parents and staff members in developing plans and setting their budgets. He also ruled that parents must be involved in setting schools’ goals and strategies for meeting those goals.

The decision (pdf) was a response to a complaint registered by a Queens parent back in December 2007, just after the DOE issued a revised version of a regulation about School Leadership Teams, required groups that are made up of equal numbers of parents and school staff. Under the revision, SLTs were stripped of their power to finalize schools’ budgets and Comprehensive Education Plans. Several other parents and the United Federation of Teachers later joined the complaint.

Mills ruled that state law does permit principals to make final decisions about school budgets. But he said the law requires that SLTs, not principals alone, develop and finalize CEPs. And he ruled that the DOE violated state law when it issued a new regulation on its own, because the law says that parents in each district should participate in the development of new regulations.

Parent advocates say Mills’ decision was based on a cut-and-dry reading of state law but is noteworthy nonetheless.

“This is one of a couple of signs of a more independent, aggressive State Education Department that is willing to stand up for parents and willing to stand up for the law,” Leonie Haimson told me yesterday. Haimson helped Marie Pollicino, a Queens parent who serves on her school’s SLT and on the parent council for District 26, draft the original complaint.

Haimson pointed to the state’s criticism of the DOE last September for failing to reduce class sizes, despite promising to do so and receiving state funds for that purpose, as another indication of its growing independence.

The DOE issued a statement yesterday saying it would “take this opportunity to clarify the language of the regulation.” How that will happen is not yet clear.

But DOE officials did say that SLT decisions made in the last year are still applicable, despite the ruling. “The commissioner’s decision doesn’t seem to indicate that we have to invalidate any decisions made under the current regulation,” Maibe Gonzalez-Fuentes, a DOE spokeswoman, told me. Schools were supposed to have submitted their CEPs for this year last month.

The DOE opened its proposed revisions to public comment in August 2007. In September, several people testified against the changes at a September 2007 City Council hearing on parent engagement, saying the changes would shut parents out of decision-making at their schools. But the final version of the regulation did not appear to contain changes based on those concerns.

Below, the DOE’s and UFT’s complete press releases:

From the DOE:

We are pleased the Commissioner ruled that under state law principals make final decisions about school budgets. It has also always been our position that a school’s comprehensive education plan should be developed collaboratively with the School Leadership Team. We’ll take this opportunity to clarify the language of the regulation. School Leadership Teams are an integral component of local accountability for student outcomes and key to our family engagement strategy.

From the UFT

State Backs Parents in Appeal of City Rule Changes That Would Limit Their Power on School Leadership Teams

The New York City Department of Education improperly changed the rules governing parent participation on school leadership teams to give principals final decision-making authority on comprehensive education plans, according to a recent ruling by State Education Department Commissioner Richard P. Mills.

Responding to an appeal filed by several parents and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the union representing New York City public school educators, Mills ordered the city Department of Education (DOE) to revise the language of Chancellor’s Regulation A-655, which governs the participation of parents, educators and administrators in school leadership teams.

Mills also ordered the DOE to submit the plan to the UFT as well as the city principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, and a committee representing parents of city school children for consultation and approval, as legally required.

“This is a great victory for parents and educators,” said UFT President Randi Weingarten after the union and the DOE received a January 5 letter from the State Education Department informing them of Mills’ December 31, 2008, ruling.

“The commissioner’s ruling shows that school leadership teams have a real role to play in school-based planning and shared decision-making,” Weingarten added. “It also affirms that comprehensive education plans are important in making sure that everyone in a school community has a say in how schools operate. It’s just sad that despite the clear intent of the legislation that created the regulation, it took going to the SED to get the DOE to comply.”

Chancellor Joel Klein issued a revised version of the regulation on December 3, 2007. Marie Pollicino, a member of Community District Education Council 26 and a parent of a child enrolled in PS 98 in Queens, initiated an appeal challenging the revision on behalf of herself and all parents of city school children.

On January 17 of last year, Melvyn Meer, a parent of two children in PS 188 in Queens and then a member of its school leadership team, sought to join in the appeal as did the community district education council and the UFT that February.

The parents and the union alleged that the DOE’s revision of the regulation gives principals final decision-making authority over both the school comprehensive education plan (CEP) and the school-based budget violated state education law. The commissioner sided with parents and the union on the planning issue, but he sided with the DOE on the budget issue, agreeing that principals should have final authority in that area.

The parents and the union also challenged the DOE’s unilateral revision of the regulation, charging that it violated state education law, and Mills agreed, ruling that parents, educators and everyone in the school community must be consulted before such revisions are made.