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Arbitrator Halts City’s Plan to Overhaul 24 Schools

Friday, June 29, 2012 - 03:10 PM

9:05 p.m. | Updated An arbitrator on Friday halted a central element of the Bloomberg administration’s plans for closing and reopening 24 schools, saying its method for overhauling the staff at those institutions violated labor contracts.

The arbitrator’s decision, issued two days after public schools closed for the summer, was a setback for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s vision of how those schools, deemed as failing, should look beginning in September. It also put in jeopardy nearly $60 million in federal aid for struggling schools, officials said.

In a statement, the mayor and Dennis M. Walcott, the schools chancellor, vowed to appeal the decision, saying, “We will not give up on the students at these 24 schools.”

As a practical matter, the ruling by the arbitrator, Scott E. Buchheit, means that teachers and leaders at the 24 schools cannot be removed as the city had planned; they must be given the chance to stay at their current schools, even if the schools change names.

The city had been in the process of replacing half the staff at each of the 24 schools. The president of the United Federation of Teachers said that in doing so, the administration had incorrectly used a contract provision meant for hiring at new institutions.

Unionized teachers or administrators who have already left may continue in their new assignments if they choose.

The decision was a victory for the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. They argued that the plans to recast the 24 schools, known as turnaround schools, ran afoul of contracts and contrasted with more deliberative ways that city schools are usually phased out. The plans have included replacing all the principals, screening the existing staff and rehiring no more than 50 percent of it.

The city embarked on the turnaround strategy after it was unable to reach an agreement with union leaders on a new teacher evaluation system that would apply to schools eligible for nearly $60 million in additional federal aid.

Separately, the state Education Department has required that a teacher evaluation system be in place for all schools by January. Any district that fails to meet that deadline could lose a 4 percent increase in state school aid, officials said. For New York City, that would amount to at least $300 million in state aid.

Last week, the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., said he would approve the city’s turnaround plan, provided the city met the federal guidelines of replacing at least 50 percent of the staff at each of the 24 schools. Now, one option for the city —to get the state to release the federal aid — is to switch to one of the three other federal models for school improvement.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the teachers union, said the “smart thing to do” now would be to get the 24 schools into a program to maintain their eligibility for federal aid. On teacher evaluations, he said, he preferred a system meant to help teachers “get better through their careers.”

Ernest A. Logan, the president of the union representing school principals and administrators, added, “The city can still get the money if they go back to another model and negotiate with us about the way to do it.”

Several analysts said the decision threw an already chaotic situation into further disarray. Principals at 6 of the 24 schools have already moved on. There are about 3,000 teaching jobs at stake and some teachers at the affected schools have already been reapplying for their positions. Others have moved on to new schools. New names for the 24 schools, some of which are among the city’s oldest, have touched off emotional responses in neighborhoods around the city.

Megan Hester, of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said she feared the city’s struggling schools would not only lose support, money and staff development, but also suffer a trauma from the disruptions.

“They took a gamble by trying the turnaround model,” she said of the Education Department. “Looks like they lost .”

Here is the arbitrator's decision:


Correction: July 12, 2012

A headline in some editions on June 30 with an article about the halting of part of a Bloomberg administration plan to close and reopen 24 schools described the official who made the decision incorrectly. As the article correctly noted, the official is an arbitrator, not a mediator.

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