Nineteen New York City public schools have been spared from closure – for the time being, at least – after a State Supreme Court judge ruled on Friday, March 26 that the City Department of Education (DOE) and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein violated city education law prior to voting for the closures.
In the end, the DOE’s attempts to shutter the schools failed not because of any ruling over the legality of the actual closings, but instead because of procedural violations related to impact statements, public hearings and parent notification of impending closures.
The DOE originally signaled its intention to close or “change the utilization” of the schools in December 2009. Among those scheduled for the chopping block were Beach Channel High School in Rockaway Park, Jamaica High School and Cambria Heights’ Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School.
Justice Joan Lobis, of the civil branch of State Supreme Court, ruled in favor of United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew and his cohort of petitioners – including elected officials, the NAACP and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, among others – that the DOE’s Panel for Education Policy (PEP) vote to phase out the schools was “null and void.”
The DOE and Klein, Lobis determined, must reissue Education Impact Statements (EIS) for the 19 schools in question so that they include “meaningful information” regarding how the closures will affect students and where the students will be absorbed.
Additionally, per education law, parents must be properly notified of any upcoming closures and the public and concerned parties must be given ample time to speak at hearings, the judge noted in her decision.
Emphasizing that the court’s ruling was no reflection of its opposition to school closures themselves, Lobis explained that the legal EIS process, as mandated by the Legislature, might very well lead the DOE “to change their decision with respect to some of the 19 schools, as they did with respect to the Alfred E. Smith Vocational High School” – a Bronx school that would have been the 20th to close, were it not for feedback from the community regarding the demand for an automotive program in the borough.
Elected officials from State Senate President Pro-tempore Malcolm Smith to Councilmember Mark Weprin and education advocacy groups all applauded the court’s decision, which amounted to a temporary reprieve for the 19 schools.
“The students in my district would have suffered an extreme disservice if three schools in the borough of Queens would have closed,” Smith said in a statement.
Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, called the decision “an important step forward for the rule of law,” adding that the process so far “has been a mockery; with no attempt to involve the parents in a meaningful way.”
Lobis acknowledged that her ruling would create inconvenience for the DOE and “hardships for students who are awaiting the results of the school matching process, but the court cannot overlook what it reluctantly concludes are significant violations of the Education Law…”
In lieu of a comment, the DOE provided a statement issued by the NYC Law Department following the court’s ruling.
"We are disappointed by today’s ruling, which, unless it is reversed, requires the Department of Education to keep open schools that are failing our children,” the statement said. “Contrary to the ruling, we believe that the Department of Education complied with the notice and public hearing requirements in the new law. The court did not take into account the extra efforts made by the department to supply the relevant facts and to keep all interested parties informed of the process.”
The NYC Law Department said it is planning an immediate appeal.