Principals Union President Ernest Logan and United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew announce lawsuit over turnarounds.

After months of charging that the city’s controversial “turnaround” plans reflected an over-reliance on closures to improve schools, the UFT and city principals union are making an about-face.

In a lawsuit filed today in State Supreme Court to halt the plans, the unions argue that turnaround doesn’t amount to closure at all. That means, they argue, that no process exists in their contracts to guide staffing changes under the federally prescribed school reform strategy.

The suit means that three and a half months of heated public hearings and fiery rhetoric is likely to come down in court to a single question: Does giving a school a new name and identification number make it a new school?

The city’s answer is yes. Under turnaround, 24 schools would close and reopen immediately with new names, many new teachers, and, in many cases, new principals — but the students would stay put. The city is using existing procedures for school closures to smooth things along — in essence collapsing an established multi-year closure process into a single moment. That includes using a clause in the UFT’s contract with the city to guide rehiring at the schools.

But union officials charged today that not much would change under turnaround.

“These are not really closures and therefore they cannot use the contractual procedures that apply to closures,” said Adam Ross, the UFT’s top lawyer, at a press conference today about the long-promised lawsuit. “The only thing they’re changing in these schools is the identification number. It’s the same students in the same buildings doing the same things.”

“We change leaders of the schools, we change staff of the schools every year,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “That does not mean they’re closed.”

The suit seeks a halt to the turnaround proceedings until an arbitrator rules on a grievance it has filed against the Department of Education. That means the city would be barred from removing or hiring staff members at the schools, although union officials said today that the union would continue to participate in rehiring committees at each school until a final ruling is made.

City officials say there’s no question that the turnaround plans are being powered by school closures — and they point to the unions’ ongoing criticism of the turnaround plans as evidence.

Indeed, the unions’ legal strategy represents a departure from their public rhetoric since Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans in January. Both Mulgrew and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators chief Ernest Logan had attacked the city for relying too heavily on closures to drive school improvement.

Even today, Mulgrew said, “That [Bloomberg] thinks it’s a good idea to close 57 schools in one year just shows how out of touch he actually is with what is going on in the school communities.” (In two rounds of proposals, the city originally aimed to close or shrink 58 schools this year but whittled that list down to 43.)

But the lawsuit argues that turnaround amounts only to “sham” closures meant to circumvent the union’s collective bargaining rules in order to overhaul the schools so that they can win federal turnaround funding.

The city has said it would use a clause in its contract with the UFT, known as 18-D, to guide rehiring at the schools. But the United Federation of Teachers contends in the long-promised lawsuit that 18-D applies only to “new and redesigned” schools, not existing ones. That means the city must negotiate a new contract for teachers in the 24 schools, the union argues.

And the principals union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, argues that the city cannot remove principals unless their positions are eliminated, including through closure, or they are charged with misconduct. Since the turnaround closures are not real, CSA contends, the city does not have the right to change the schools’ leadership, as it has already moved to do  — a requirement for many of the schools if they are to receive the federal funding.

The timing is delicate. Even a temporary halt to the turnaround plans while a judge weighs the merits of a union case could be an insurmountable delay because the entire process is taking place so late in the year — something that Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott signaled in a statement.

“We have already begun preparations to open these 24 new schools next fall, training their leadership teams and holding productive meetings with the UFT to begin the process of staffing the new schools,” Walcott said. “Sadly, today’s lawsuit could have damaging consequences for that process, jeopardizing the creation of exciting new schools with new programs, teachers, and leadership structures.”

The lawsuit marks the third time in three years that the United Federation of Teachers has turned to the courts in an effort to stop the city from closing schools. In 2010, the city withdrew closure plans for 19 schools after the city charged that the Department of Education had not followed the law when proposing the closures. Last year, the union charged that the schools the city wanted to close had received inadequate resources, but a judge rejected the union’s request for a restraining order. UFT officials said today that they were not currently considering a lawsuit to stop 23 closures and truncations approved under the regular process in February.