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Amid Protesters’ Disruptions, City Board Votes to Close 18 Schools and Truncate 5

Friday, February 10, 2012 - 12:37 AM

WNYC Beth Fertig's report on the school closing vote

A city board voted on Thursday night to close 18 schools and eliminate the middle school grades at five others, citing poor performance.

The decision drew howls of opposition from hundreds of teachers’ union members, parents and students, who gathered in the auditorium of Brooklyn Technical High School along with a group that was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The Panel for Educational Policy, a board that replaced the city’s Board of Education, determined that the schools’ test scores, graduation rates and leadership failings were too severe to merit keeping them open. Among them were nine schools opened during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s tenure.

The newest of those schools, the General D. Chappie James Elementary School of Science in Brownsville, Brooklyn, was opened in 2008 to replace a school that was being closed.

On the other end of the spectrum, the oldest school, Public School 19 Roberto Clemente in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, opened in 1910. The panel also voted to approve the location of 16 new schools that will take the place of those that are closed, as well as the expansion of four other schools.

The panel meeting has become an annual spectacle that draws hundreds of protesters and vigorous union opposition. Though the crowd appeared to be a bit lighter this year, and fewer people had signed up to speak, the involvement of the protest group, which calls itself Occupy the Department of Education, contributed to an atmosphere that was more chaotic than usual. There was a heavy police presence at the event, but no immediate reports of arrests.

The meeting, as in years past, was expected to go on for hours, with the panel’s votes not expected until possibly early on Friday. But two hours into the meeting the 2,500-seat auditorium began to empty out, as the Occupy members reacted to an unconfirmed report that the police were about to make arrests, and parents and students gave up on trying to speak.

Up to that point, the meeting had been a scene of loud chanting and political theater. As parents, teachers and others stepped up to a microphone to urge the panel members to save their schools, the protesters engaged in a practice called “people’s mic,” where what one person says is repeated throughout the room.

At points, it was as if several meetings were going on at once, all of them confused and cacophonous, with sound spilling over from one group to the next.

Some of the members of the panel, who sat on the stage, wore headphones so they could hear the testimony of the speakers who stayed to be heard at the microphone. Most of the speakers opposed the closings, but a few parents urged the city to open new and better schools.

The panel is controlled by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who appoints a majority of its 13 members. In the history of the panel, it has never voted to reject a school closing proposal, a fact that has fueled deep resentment from advocacy groups and the city’s teachers’ union, who claim the panel is effectively a rubber stamp for the mayor’s policies.

That history held true, with all the mayor’s appointees approving the proposals, while the representatives from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx dissented.

The Staten Island representative voted for the closings, except for the school in her borough, P.S. 14.

The teachers’ union had planned to hold its own meeting at a nearby public school, but at the last minute it abandoned that plan and brought its supporters into the auditorium, where the Occupy supporters had already booed the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, and begun a series of chants. The group has been showing up recently at Education Department events.

On Wednesday two schools that were on the list to be closed were granted a reprieve. Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan will keep its middle-school grades and get a new principal. Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy VII in Brooklyn will remain open under its current principal, who arrived in the fall.

“While these two schools continue to struggle, what we learned is that they are also poised to quickly improve,” Mr. Walcott said in a statement.

Since the mayor was granted control of the system, in 2002, the city has closed 117 schools, many of them large high schools, and opened numerous small schools in their place.

On Wednesday, the city received a report from its Independent Budget Office suggesting that high schools on the closing list enroll a higher percentage of poor students and those with disabilities or who do not speak English than do high schools throughout the city.

The report also claimed that the schools the city planned to close had more students who arrived already performing below their grade level.

City officials disputed the data and said the Independent Budget Office should have given them more time to respond. In a letter to the budget office’s director, Ronnie Lowenstein, the Education Department’s general counsel, Michael Best, wrote that there were “significant mistakes in the data analysis.”

Although the panel has now voted to close the schools, most will remain open for several more years but will not accept new students. As older students graduate and move on, the schools will shrink, until they finally close.

An earlier version of this post did not note that the Staten Island representative voted No on the proposal to close a school in her borough.

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