Protesters Stage Walk Out as Panel Votes to Close More Schools

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A city panel voted early Friday morning to phase out 12 more schools — including storied Jamaica High and Columbus High in the Bronx — following a rowdy public hearing in which hundreds staged a walk-out in a show of protest.

Roughly 2,000 people -- many chanting "Save our schools" and toting hand-made placards -- packed the auditorium of Brooklyn Tech during the Panel for Educational Policy's second vote on the fate of 25 low-performing schools. On Tuesday, the panel voted to close 10 schools.

Most of those in attendance were parents, teachers, students and activists opposed to gradually closing and replacing the low-performing schools, and the teachers union bused in a sizable presence and organized a rally outside before the hearting in Fort Greene.

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black was once again a lightning rod during the hearing. One protester carried a sign with her photo and the word "puppet." Another sign, in reference Black's previous career as a publisher, was emblazoned with the phrase: "Run a Magazine, Run a School System, Same thing."

Brooklyn City Councilman Charles Barron told her in his testimony that she had "a lot of nerve" for " taunting parents after closing their schools down." Barron was referring to the moment during the vote earlier in the week when Black was interrupted and responded with a sarcastic "oooohhhh" into her microphone during the vote earlier in the week.

Black tried to make a statement at the start of Thursday's hearing but her microphone wasn't working and she was drowned out by chanting and whistling. A spokesman sent reporters the text:

"These schools have demonstrated persistently poor performance — in some cases for a decade or longer. This is true despite an array of interventions the Department of Education implemented in hopes of reversing those patterns. We owe it to our families to give them the best possible options, and in the case of the 12 schools proposed for phase out tonight, that means replacing those schools with new ones."

The panel's chairman, Tino Hernandez, continued calling the numbers assigned to audience members who had signed up to speak. But the crowd kept chanting slogans as they grabbed their coats and filed out of the auditorium.

Parent activist Zakiya Ansari, of the Alliance for Quality Education, said she and others were leaving because "we know the decision (to close schools) was already made." She called the panel, which is controlled by mayoral appointees, a "big sham." The panel voted early Wednesday morning to close two schools and phase-out eight others after almost six hours of public comment.

"It didn't make sense to stay," said Justin Thomas, a student at Paul Robeson High School who left the auditorium with hundreds of other protesters. The panel voted to phase-out his school and replace it with two smaller schools at its previous meeting.

Thursday's walk-out appeared to have been organized by the teachers union. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said "this process is completely illegitimate." He said the state law is supposed to provide a real process before closing schools and "they're not doing that." 

Earlier this week, Mulgrew said he wants to investigate whether the city failed to provide the schools with enough support to keep them from declining. He pointed to an Independent Budget Office study finding the 25 schools the city planned to close have a higher-than-usual share of special education students and English Language Learners.

The UFT won a lawsuit last year to prevent the city from closing 19 schools. Two courts agreed that the city didn't provide enough community input. A total of 15 of those schools came up again this year for phase-outs and closings because of their low graduation and attendance rates, as well as low enrollment.

The Department of Education maintains that small new schools can do a better job of educating at-risk populations than the larger schools they're replacing. But seven of the schools the city wants to phase-out or close altogether were created by the Bloomberg administration. Education officials, however, note that the city has created about 450 schools since the mayor took office and that only a handful have failed.

Public comments ended by 11 p.m. because so many people walked out earlier in the night. Of the few hundred who remained, many were charter school parents who supported the city's plan to replace two of the schools being phase-out with charters.

"Sharing is caring," said Delisha Powell, whose two children go to Leadership Prep. The charter network plans to open a new school inside Brooklyn's PS 332.

Parents opposed to the charters also stayed, including a sizeable contingent from PS 9 in Prospect Heights. They wanted their elementary school to expand to middle grades because the panel was voting to phase-out a middle school in the same building. But the panel approved of plans to let another charter run by Uncommon Schools to open its own middle school in the building, meaning students will have to apply to a lottery (though kids in the district will get priority).

Anthony Mullen, whose son attends kindergarten at PS 9, called the plan a "tragedy that pits parents against parents."

Once again, the mayor's eight appointees voted in favor of the school phase-outs. In most cases, the four members appointed by the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens borough presidents voted no. The Staten Island representative was absent again. A spokeswoman cited personal reasons.

The vote concluded after midnight and then panel members approved some contracts, ending their business at around 1 a.m. Afterward, Chancellor Black would not answer questions from reporters about this week's votes to close a total of 22 schools enrolling several thousand students. Last year, after a vote to close 19 schools that wrapped up at 4 a.m., then-chancellor Joel Klein fielded numerous questions from the press.

The panel postponed a vote on a plan to replace PS 114 in Brooklyn with a charter and a regular school that would take all of the school's younger students. Several parents who had come from the school to Thursday's hearing were excited because they thought their lobbying had paid off. But a department spokesman said the panel wanted more time to consider the public feedback and would take up the proposal at its next hearing in March, when it will also vote on plans to close two schools in Queens. The Queens schools were going to be voted on this week but the city rescheduled them.