Plans to Close 26 Schools Will Proceed Regardless of Financing, City Says

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Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott said on Wednesday that the city will close and reopen 26 schools this summer, regardless of whether New York State's education commissioner approves the plans.

State education officials have set a goal for themselves of issuing a decision by June, at which point they will either sign off on the city's plans and restore nearly $60 million in federal grant money that they have withheld, or reject the proposals and leave the city to cover costs for the second half of this school year, roughly $36 million. But with or without the financing, the schools will close, Mr. Walcott said.

Following a public hearing at which members of the State Assembly criticized the city's school closing plans, Mr. Walcott said reopening the schools and replacing some of the teaching staff would lead to higher graduation rates and more students who are prepared for college and the workplace.

"Our goal is to have an immediate impact on these schools," he said. And if the state education department rejects the proposals, "we'll just proceed another way," he said.

A minimum of three consecutive years of graduation rates under 60 percent have landed these 26 schools on the state's list of "persistently lowest achieving" schools, and made them eligible for millions of dollars in federal school improvement grant money.

Two years ago, city officials placed some of these schools under one of two plans, known as transformation and restart. To use these strategies, federal guidelines required the city and the teachers union to reach an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system.

When negotiations over that system broke down in December, State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. declared the city out of compliance with the grant's requirements and withheld the financing.

But city officials quickly devised a way around the stalled talks with the union. 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 federal guidelines, a school turnaround involves closing a school and reopening it, replacing half of the staff and the principals. In New York City, officials have said that only principals with three or more years in their schools would be removed and that schools will have some flexibility to decide how many teachers are replaced.

Last week, the city withdrew plans to close seven schools, bringing the total from 33 to 26.

The city's proposals drew swift criticism from many teachers and principals, and on Wednesday, elected officials from the Bronx and Queens added their voices to the chorus of opposition.

Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, whose district in the Bronx includes one of the 26 turnaround schools, said Mayor Bloomberg's decision to close and reopen the schools was motivated by revenge.

"He's basing this not on an educational platform, but a frustration with a teachers union that he couldn’t come into agreement with," Mr. Benedetto said. "And so acting in frustration, he has turned revenge on them, he has turned to this turnaround model to punish the union."

The principals union president, Ernest Logan, said the city's decision to use the turnaround model was part of a "complex political game."

Mr. Walcott responded: "This is not an act of revenge against the U.F.T. We believe this is a sound education model that has an immediate impact."

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Queens Democrat, said she called the hearing out of concern that state and city were spending millions in federal grant money on contracts with non-profit groups given the task of improving programs at the schools, and with little oversight.

Ms. Nolan said it was "shocking" that the state Education Department has refused to make the city's school turnaround proposals publicly available, and added she would try to obtain them under a Freedom of Information request.

A graduate of Grover Cleveland High School, one of the 26 schools, Ms. Nolan said her alma mater always had problems. Too many students were packed into its classrooms and hallways -- they were encouraged to graduate early if they could, to alleviate crowding, she said -- and it enrolled a wide range of students whose academic performance ran the gamut.

Ms. Nolan questioned the Department of Education's decision to pay $1.5 million to the Southern Regional Education Board to help the school improve its vocational courses, when it dismantled the school's shop program decades ago.

"Honestly, to spend a million five to bring back shop to Cleveland, I don't think it’s going to be a silver bullet," she said. "I can only hope and pray that you reconsider. Not because they ever had glory days, but because they provided something that was missing elsewhere, and they could lose the little they have."

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg said that Grover Cleveland's principal, Denise Vittor, had chosen to work with the Southern Regional Education Board, based on her experience with them at her previous school.