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City and Unions Head to Court Over 24 School Closings

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - 06:43 AM

The Bloomberg administration returns to court Tuesday to appeal an arbitrator's ruling against the city regarding the closing and reopening of 24 struggling schools, extending the confusion for teachers and school administrators who are trying to get ready for the new school year.

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said the arbitrator, Scott E. Buchheit, exceeded his authority when he ruled that the city had violated union contracts by letting go thousands of teachers and forcing them to reapply for their positions.

"Unfortunately this ruling pushes these schools back and most importantly will hurt our students in the long run," the chancellor said in an interview on WOR Radio on Monday.

The city's plan has the schools serving the same students and maintaining many of the same programs, but with new names and many new staff members. The arbitrator sided with the teachers' union when he said this approach wasn't the same as creating a school from scratch in the same building. As the two sides take it to court, schools are scrambling.

"The uncertainty of the path forward creates a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation," said Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, which is partnering with two of the 24 schools. "Two months before the start of school we have no idea who's going to staff those schools. And certainly the entire process has left a significant number of staff people angry and demoralized."

Elizabeth Bouiss, who teaches media arts and film at what was formerly John Dewey High School, said she believed she would be hired back to work at the new school the city wants to create there, Shorefront High School of Arts and Sciences, because of her specialized position. But she said she couldn't know for sure.

"I want a position in a school," she said, "whether it's called Dewey or Shorefront. So I would like to know that and have that solidified. I do have a family. I am the sole provider, and I would like to know that."

Ms. Bouiss said it would be "destabilizing" to join the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, which is for teachers who lose their jobs but remain on the city payroll while they look for new positions and work as substitutes.

Robin Kovat, a social studies teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School, was surprised to hear the city changed the school name on its Web site, listing it now as the Academy of Career Exploration.

Ms. Kovat said she found out last month that she was hired to work at the school this fall and is happy with the new principal. But she said the process of applying all over again to work at her building was stressful at the end of the school year, when she was still helping her students complete their courses.

“I had to get a binder and put in letters from students and parents, lesson plans and observations and any other outside information that could show what I was doing, even though everybody already knew," said Ms. Kovat, a 15-year veteran.

In addition to the uncertainty facing teachers, outside consultants who have been working with 12 of the 24 struggling schools since last school year are unclear which staff members they should be training and how they will be reimbursed for their services.

Along with New Visions for Public Schools, which is working with the former John Adams and Automotive high schools in Queens, educational partners include Diplomas Now, which is working with Sheepshead Bay and Newtown high schools this fall, and Institute for Student Achievement, which is working with the Dewey campus.

Vincent Brevetti, Institute for Student Achievement's senior director for program management, said it was difficult planning a summer training program not knowing who would work at the school this fall.

"We proceeded on the basis of the principal bringing whatever staff was available to come to the institute, regardless of whether or not they were rehired because we didn't know what was happening," he said. "So our stance is that we're working with whatever we're handed."

If the city loses its appeal, teachers who weren't chosen by personnel committees would be allowed to return to the buildings, creating potential friction with their supervisors. It's not clear if any principals who left during the 2011-12 school year could come back if the arbitrator's ruling holds up.

Mr. Hughes, of New Visions for Public Schools, said the entire episode revealed two big weaknesses.

"The long-term problem is how do we deal with the fact that we have no clear strategic plan to turn around some of the city's lowest performing schools," he said. "And in the short term, we have the challenge of opening in the fall after an extraordinarily frustrating process that remains unresolved."

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