Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city's plan to close and reopen 26 struggling schools in order to keep federal funds was "not an act of revenge" against the teachers union.
Walcott was responding to a question about revenge as possible motive by Bronx state Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, during a hearing by the Assembly's education committee. He said the controversial plan was based on feedback from the State Board of Regents on the need to "aggressively accelerate their [the schools’] reforms."
"We believe this is a sound educational model," he said.
Parents, educators and students have questioned the city's plan to close the schools and reopen them this fall with new names - and to replace up to half their teachers and many of their principals.
Representatives from unions representing the teachers and city principals also testified against the chancellor’s plans.
Leo Casey, a vice president for the United Federation of Teachers, called it “intellectually bankrupt” because some of the schools were showing improvements.
The city originally planned to use $58 million in federal funds to improve a total of 33 schools with less drastic strategies.
But it changed its plan this year after a dispute with the teachers union over a new teacher evaluation plan. That led the state to suspend the grants.
The city has since removed seven high schools from the list, on the grounds that they had demonstrated progress.
Walcott also told the committee he would make sure the 26 new schools retain programs that had shown success at the existing schools, such as bilingual classes.
Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine Nolan (D-Queens) noted the number of Queens high schools offering Spanish bilingual programs would drop from 11 to four if the city went ahead with its plan and simply closed the schools in their current form. But a deputy chancellor who also testified, Marc Sternberg, said the number of bilingual seats will be retained.
They also said all students attending the 26 schools would be able to attend the new schools.
When questioned by Nolan about whether juniors at her alma mater, Grover Cleveland High School, would graduate with diplomas from Cleveland, though, Sternberg said they would not.
The city's plan, which is called Turnaround, requires state approval.
In testimony before the assembly's education committee, State Education Commissioner John King said he expected to make a decision by early June.
But a panel controlled by mayoral appointees is scheduled to vote at its April 26 meeting.
King also told the committee members that the city's 26 turnaround schools were selected from the state's list of Persistently Low Achieving schools, which is based solely on federal criteria: low scores on state math and reading tests, and four-year graduation rates of less than 60 percent for three years in a row.
He said the state had little flexibility, when asked whether it could intervene and take a school off the list.
King declined to release the city's detailed proposals for the 26 turnaround schools before making a decision on the plan.
Nolan said she and her Assembly colleagues would file Freedom of Information requests because of "curiosity and concern" about the change.
Ernest Logan, president of the union representing school principals and other administrators, echoed her concern when he asked, “Why the veil of secrecy?”
He said the documents should be made “so that the community can understand what will happen to their students and school and have the opportunity to comment.”