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Unions Claim School Closings Violate Their Contracts

Monday, May 07, 2012 - 07:07 PM

Unions representing public school principals and teachers challenged the city's decision to shuffle the staffs at 24 schools this summer, saying the plan is really a "sham" attempt to close the schools and get rid of personnel in violation of their contracts.

At a news conference on Monday near Manhattan's State Supreme Court, union leaders said they asked the court to block personnel decisions related to what the city has been calling a "turnaround" plan at the 24 schools.

Under that plan, the schools would be shut at the end of the school year and many would get new leaders. The city would let go of all the teachers, and committees at each school could hire back about half of them based on qualifications. The schools will reopen in September with new names but the same students.

The unions' contracts regulate how personnel can be removed from closing schools when new ones are opened. The unions argue that, in this case, the city is simply closing the schools and reopening them as virtually the same entities, bypassing their contracts in the process.

They are asking the court for a temporary restraining order, so an arbitrator can have time to address the merits of grievances they filed with the city after the Panel for Educational Policy approved the closings last month.

That could take until June, putting pressure on the city's plans for the 24 schools.

In addition, if an arbitrator rules in the unions' favor -- which some labor experts said was a real possibility -- that could effectively scuttle the plans, a setback for the Bloomberg administration in its attempts to overhaul what it deems are failing schools.

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott responded with a strong attack on the unions. In an e-mailed statement, he said:

The U.F.T. and C.S.A. have shown that they would rather leave our students' futures to the courts than do the difficult work of turning around failing schools and giving students the education they deserve. We have already begun preparations to open these 24 new schools next fall, training their leadership teams and holding productive meetings with the U.F.T. to begin the process of staffing the new schools. Sadly, today’s lawsuit could have damaging consequences for that process, jeopardizing the creation of exciting new schools with new programs, teachers and leadership structures.

This is not the first time the teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers, has tried to block the city's attempts to close schools. But in the past it argued that the Education Department violated state education law by not allowing enough community response.

This time, the union is basing its challenge entirely on contractual arguments.

The city's Education Department contends that it is already allowed to dismiss all the teachers at a closing school and hire back new ones for the replacement school under Article 18D of its contract with the teachers' union. Officials say they have done this before at several schools they closed and then replaced with new schools.

But the word "new" is the central issue. The unions claim the 24 schools are not really new because they'll remain in the same locations and take the same students as their predecessors.

"These are sham closings; these are not closings," said Ernest Logan, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals. "Many of the teachers will stay; many of the supervisors will stay."

The United Federation of Teachers president, Michael Mulgrew, accused the city of closing the schools for "political purposes."

"It's all about the mayor, and it's not about the kids," he said.

The city's Panel for Educational Policy voted to close the 24 schools after several months of turmoil over the schools' status.

They are part of a group of 33 struggling schools for which the city had originally intended to use $58 million in federal grants for improvements. But in January, when the city wasn't able to meet a deadline for an agreement with the teachers' union on a new teacher evaluation system, the state withheld the federal money, which it controls.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg then announced he would seek to win back the funds by using a federally approved strategy, called "turnaround," in which the schools could use the grants to close and reopen with many new staff members. This would not require a teacher evaluation deal. The list was whittled down to 24, after the city spared nine that it said had improved.

Federal rules prohibit turnaround schools from taking back more than half of their old teachers. But Education Department officials have said principals can hire back as many as they want, if it's in their school's best interest, even if that means forgoing the federal money.

Meanwhile, the city's turnaround plans are still subject to state approval, and a decision isn't expected until June. Mr. Walcott has said he'll go forward with the turnaround plans even if the state rejects them. He has also denied that the closings are an act of "revenge" targeted at teachers for failing to agree to an evaluation system, as some elected officials had suggested.

In 2010 the union won a lawsuit, in conjunction with parent groups and the N.A.A.C.P., that stopped the city from phasing out 19 struggling schools. Two courts found the city violated state law by not providing enough community notification. But the union lost a similar suit last year, and the city began phasing out 22 schools in September (though the U.F.T. continues to appeal).

The principals' union did not join those previous efforts, and administrators are usually reluctant to criticize City Hall. But Mr. Logan said that after negotiating with the city, "we've gotten to the point where we've run up against a brick wall."

The unions claim the city will create too much chaos if it goes ahead with replacing teachers and supervisors before an arbitrator hears its case.

"If allowed to run its course prior to a determination by an arbitrator, it will be like a Gordion Knot, unable to be unwound, effectively depriving the U.F.T., C.S.A. and their members of meaningful relief," the unions said.

Yasmeen Khan and Theodoric Meyer contributed reporting.

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