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Judge Blocks Controversial School Closings

Jaisal Noor Apr 1, 2010

On March 26, New York State Supreme Court Judge Joan B. Lobis reversed a controversial decision to shut down 19 New York City public schools. The ruling, in response to a lawsuit jointly filed by the United Federation of Teachers and the NAACP, came two months to the day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s handpicked schoolboard approved the closures.

In the sharply worded ruling, Lobis wrote that the Panel for Education Policy carried out “significant violations of the Education Law” by ignoring outspoken opposition to the school closings. Further, Lobis wrote, the Department of Education (DOE) “appeared to trivialize the whole notion of community involvement in decisions regarding the closing or phasing out of schools.”

This decision is the first of its kind since the state legislature renewed Bloomberg’s control of the city’s public school system last summer. The ruling mandates that the DOE submit Educational Impact Statements and hold public hearings before closing or colocating schools.

David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College professor of education, law and policy, commented on gothamschools.org that the ruling “will be difficult to overturn on appeal,” because “the decision is squarely based on facts admitted by both parties and established law about Environmental Impact Statements.”

However, there are still concerns about the extent to which Judge Lobis’ decision will actually loosen Bloomberg’s grasp on public schools.

Seung Ok, a teacher at Maxwell High School in East New York, Brooklyn, one of the 19 schools slated for closure, said he is cautiously optimistic about the decision.

“This gives us a chance to mobilize further and get the word out that the DOE does break laws, but it does not try to support the schools,” Ok said, who is also an organizer with the Grassroots Education Movement, a citywide network of teachers and parents that has protested the closings.

According to Leonie Haimson, executive director of the educational advocacy group Class Size Matters, while the ruling does require the DOE to conduct more through Educational Impact Statements, once it receives Panel for Education approval on a decision, there is nothing to stop the DOE from closing more schools — or opening new ones.

“A more independent Panel for Educational Policy and making DOE subject to city law are important checks and balances that should have been incorporated into the law. In the end, if they clean up the public process, it will slow them down, but they will likely get to the same end,” Haimson said.

The DOE still plans to open 15 new, smaller schools in the buildings of the schools that were slated to begin to be phased out this fall.

Closing large public schools and opening smaller, often privately run charter schools, has been a centerpiece of Bloomberg’s educational agenda, with the DOE closing 91 schools since he was granted direct control of the city’s school system in 2002.

The closings, which would affect 13,000 students, primarily targeted schools in people-of-color neighborhoods.