Charter Fight Heads to Court
Newly elected public advocate and others file suit to halt DOE charter school decisions, including two on the East side
A coalition of elected officials and activist organizations has sued the city in hopes of nullifying some 42 school co-locations throughout the city, including two on the Upper East Side.
The DOE's Panel on Education Policy, a 13-member school board of which 8 members are appointed by the mayor, approved the co-locations in October. Many are set to take place at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. Co-locations occur in New York City when a charter school - a publicly funded independent school that enrolls students on a lottery system - seeks space in an existing public school building.
Critics of the policy, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, say that having two separate schools in the same building will create a two-class system and a war for resources and funding.
Bulk approval of the co-locations prompted outrage from education activists, parents and local leaders who said the move was a last-minute effort by the panel to enact Mayor Bloomberg's charter school-heavy education policies at the tail-end of his tenure.
Letitia James, the city's newly elected Public Advocate and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, vowed to fight the co-locations even before she took office. The suit was filed on Dec. 26 and also lists East Side Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito and Lower Manhattan Councilwoman Margaret Chin as plaintiffs, as well as elected officials in Brooklyn and Queens and three education activist organizations.
Among the co-locations at the heart of the suit are two on the north end of the East Side.
P.S. 50 Vito Marcantonio in East Harlem serves students kindergarten through eighth grade and currently has an enrollment of 126 students. The DOE has proposed extending an existing co-location plan there that serves kindergarten and first-grade students of the DREAM Charter School, which began in September 2013. P.S. 50 is already home to the New York Center for Autism Charter School.
J.H.S. 13 Jackie Robinson, also in East Harlem, serves grades seventh and eighth as well as special education students. In January 2013 the DOE proposed phasing the school out due to poor performance. Now, it's proposing to co-locate the East Harlem Scholars Academy Charter School in the school's building when Jackie Robinson closes at the conclusion of the 2015-16 school year.
According to the suit, the 42 co-location approvals that occurred in October, were "an effort by the outgoing PEP, most of whom expected to be replaced by a new mayor...to rapidly complete a program of co-locations favored by the outgoing Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and the outgoing Schools Chancellor, Dennis Walcott, but disfavored by the then-likely new Mayor, Bill de Blasio."
Arthur Schwartz, the attorney who was tapped to head up the suit, said he was approached to represent members of a Lower East Side community who were seeking to stop the co-location at the school. Schwartz has a background in representing the United Teachers Federation in disputes with the DOE. "These days whenever anyone wants to fight a colocation they call us," said Schwartz.
The DOE declined to comment on the pending litigation.
While exploring the downtown case, involving University Neighborhood High School, Schwartz saw the benefit of rolling all 42 co-locations that were approved in October into one suit. When James caught wind of his effort, she signed on as a plaintiff.
The suit places a heavy emphasis on what the plaintiffs feel was a rushed process to shape the city's education policies in years to come, as evidenced, they say, by the DOE's submittal of impact statements for schools that are slated to co-locate two years from the 2014-15 school year. The suit claims the process deprived "the most significant stakeholders, the parents of the affected students, of the opportunity to access relevant and accurate information such that they may appropriately participate in the process as required by law."
The suit characterized the public hearings that came along with the co-location proposals as "meaningless."
Schwartz said the suit was timed to fall within the mandatory filing deadline but also so that the new administration could pursue a settlement independent of the previous administration.
"Partly I think what we were trying to do here is push to the front of the line," said Schwartz of the myriad issues that are important to middle-class New Yorkers, many of which are expected to be brought before the de Blasio administration.
Lisa Donlan, chair of the District 1 Community Education Council, said the suit is a hopeful sign for parents and students at the school. Her fear, which is shared by many in the community, is that adding another school into the UNHS building will lead to oversized classes and a war for resources between the two schools' principals.
Donlan previously told Our Town Downtown that existing students at UNHS use space on the first floor as a combination auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium and lobby. The building's electrical system is so strained that administrators couldn't install newly acquired air conditioners last summer. In addition, the building was originally designed as an elementary school with narrow hallways and smaller classrooms, she said.
"Our hope is that the DOE will reconsider this co-location. We're not convinced that this is a feasible fit," said Donlan in an interview. "We're hoping that the lawsuit causes a new conversation about what's going to work for the students."
Of the 42 city schools that are planned to be co-located, 12 are in Manhattan, including four schools in Yorkville and Harlem. Murry Bergtraum in the Two Bridges neighborhood of Lower Manhattan is also slated for co-location.
"The proposals at issue here would bind the next mayoral administration to the same controversial education policies that the [Bloomberg] administration has embraced," the filing states. "It is capricious to suppose that future elected administrations cannot appropriately govern the NYC school system. The attempt to concretize the policies of [the Bloomberg administration] is as transparent as it is illegal."
Schwartz said he fully expects that the city's charter school coalition will mount an effort to stay the co-location decisions.
When asked about his suit's chances of success, Schwartz said, "I'd rather be in our position than in theirs."
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