School Closings Face Final Hurdle

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Members of the Panel for Educational Policy will vote Monday night to close nearly two dozen low-performing schools, adding to the 142 schools already closed or in the process of phasing out under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The panel has never voted against a proposal to shutter a school. Similarly, protesters have never failed to show up and try to influence the process. This year will be no different except it may be the last round of massive school closings under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The current list of 22 schools proposed for phasing out or closure this year was whittled down from 60 struggling schools tapped for “early engagement” review. Late last week, two schools were spared by education officials who said they would not close Herbert H. Lehman High School and P.S. 140 Edward K. Ellington.

With history as a guide, members of the Panel for Educational Policy, the majority of whom are appointed by the mayor, are expected to approve the current closure plans. But there is every indication that, once again, protesters would fill the auditorium at Brooklyn Technical High School, where the meeting is held.

“If you don’t say anything, then it becomes an issue of, ‘well, it’s okay,’” said Kenneth Cohen, regional director for the NAACP’s metropolitan council, which includes all New York City branches of the organization. “We will never stop fighting.”

The state conference of the NAACP plans a strong showing at Monday’s meeting, with members wearing matching shirts and caps, as it has in previous years. The teachers’ union and the non-profit group New York Communities for Change also said they plan to be there, protesting the Bloomberg administration’s closure and co-location policies.

Dmytro Fedkowskyj, a PEP member appointed by the Queens borough president, said he was sympathetic to the protests, adding he believed the city hastily closed schools rather than using the measure as a last resort. He said he welcomed the crowd at the PEP vote.

"I'm glad they come," he said. "Whether there's a hundred speakers or 500 speakers or five -- our purpose is to listen to them."

When the public speaking period begins on Monday evening, many will direct their ire toward Marc Sternberg, the deputy chancellor for the division of portfolio planning. As the one at the D.O.E. tasked with closing schools and creating new ones, his job at PEP meetings is to sit on stage and listen to hours of mostly acerbic testimony.

"It's very meaningful to hear from folks who are impacted," said Sternberg, "and at times it's grueling. But we need to obviously stay focused on our ultimate goal here which is improved student outcomes."

Sternberg acknowledged the disruption caused by school closures. "We are making dramatic change and that's painful for people," he said.

Bloomberg called the panel an "advisory" board for the chancellor; critics called it a rubber stamp. Eight of the 13 members are appointed by the mayor while the others are appointed by borough presidents.

Among those seeking to succeed Bloomberg as mayor, there is talk of reforming the Panel for Educational Policy to make it more independent. But, until then, the New York City schools should anticipate that the PEP will approve more changes to schools even beyond Monday's vote to close 22 of them.

The panel will vote on proposals for new schools opening, co-locations and grade expansions at a meeting scheduled for March 20. And they may have the opportunity to close more schools before a new mayor is elected.

When asked if this round of closures would be the last under Bloomberg, Sternberg said: "We're going to make every effort over every day we have to work as hard as possible to move student achievement, and we'll take it one day at a time."