City Submits Plans to Close and Reopen 33 Schools

With only three months left until the end of the school year, city education officials are proceeding with plans to close and reopen 33 schools this summer. On Tuesday, officials sent their proposals to the State Education Department, kicking off a review process that could take months and wind up in court.

The future of the schools, some of which are in academic distress while others have shown great improvement, has been in jeopardy since January, when the city and the teachers' union failed to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system. Without a deal in place, the schools became ineligible to receive federal grant money, and city officials adopted a new strategy to obtain the nearly $60 million that would be lost.

In his State of the City address, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a plan to overcome the stalemate by using a school improvement strategy known as turnaround, which does not require a teacher evaluation system to be in place. Under this plan, the 33 schools would close and reopen this summer, retaining their students but replacing many of their staff members and some principals. The state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., must decide whether the mayor's proposal qualifies the schools for the federal grant, which he previously withheld.

Officials of the union, the United Federation of Teachers, have referred to the plan as a hostage situation, claiming the mayor is essentially holding the schools captive, forcing the union to come to their rescue and agree to a citywide evaluation system.

But on Wednesday, the union's vice president, Leo Casey, said the union was feeling no additional pressure to bring talks to a speedy conclusion.

The union's approach is "one step at a time," he said. First, he said, the union wants a deal on teacher evaluations for just the 33 schools, which would allow them to meet the federal grant's requirements while following less invasive improvement approaches, known as transformation and restart.

"Once these schools are no longer held hostage," Mr. Casey said, "we can move on to talking about the other schools."

City officials have said they are not willing to negotiate two separate teacher evaluation deals to spare the 33 schools.

Public hearings at three of the schools -- Harlem Renaissance, a transfer high school; Sheepshead Bay High School; and Automotive High School in Brooklyn -- will begin tonight and continue throughout the next month. And on April 26, the Panel for Educational Policy, which is controlled by the mayor, will vote on whether to close them.

Although Mr. Bloomberg said using the turnaround model would allow the city to "replace up to 50 percent of the faculty” at these schools, by forming committees to evaluate the current teaching staff members based on their classroom performance, city officials are now telling principals that they will not have to remove exactly half of their staff.

"We’ve been telling schools to go out -- after the hearing process -- to go out and hire the best teachers you can; don't worry about a particular number," said Matthew Mittenthal, a spokesman for the city's Education Department.

If, for example, a principal believes that 70 percent of the teachers are excellent and wants to keep them, the city may still be able to meet the turnaround model's requirements by drawing on previous years' teacher turnover numbers to show that there has already been change in the staff.