By Anna Gustafson
The United Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the city Department of Education last week in an attempt to lower the class size at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, which the city Independent Budget Office recently ranked as the second most-crowded high school in the city.
“During the last school year, the UFT went to arbitration because the DOE refused to lower class sizes at Francis Lewis HS, one of the most overcrowded schools in the city,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said. “On March 10, 2010, an arbitrator ordered the DOE to comply with the class size guidelines in the contract, but the department not only refused to do so, it actually increased the number of oversize classes at the school. We are asking the court to act now to help make sure that students are not victimized again.”
The UFT filed the suit in state Supreme Court in Manhattan Sept. 14.
The DOE said the arbitrator had not yet made a final decision this year and had told the DOE and the UFT he would hold off on making a ruling about compliance until Sept. 23. City officials said they have been working with the UFT and the arbitrator since March to implement a plan to decrease class size.
“It is hard to understand why the UFT would prematurely rush to court when we’ve been working together, with an arbitrator, to find a sustainable solution for the school,” a DOE spokesman said. “The arbitrator has retained jurisdiction and has not issued a final order, making the UFT’s statement all the more perplexing.”
But the UFT said the arbitrator, Jeffrey B. Tener, ruled March 10 that the “department is directed to comply with the contractual class size limitations by equalizing classes to the extent possible and/or by adding additional classes.”
The lawsuit charges that despite Tener’s ruling, the DOE “continued to add more students to the oversized Francis Lewis HS classes.”
Last year, the school had more than 4,500 students, or approximately 175 percent of the school’s capacity, according to the UFT.
Francis Lewis Principal Musa Ali Shama said the population has decreased this year to just under 4,300, which he said is a helpful improvement. Shama also said the DOE has been working well with the school to try to decrease class size, including letting the school know about “over-the-counter students,” or pupils who register last-minute with the school.
The UFT emphasized that most high school classes can be no larger than 34 students. The principal said the average class size at Francis Lewis was about 31 students.
“The DOE has done a wonderful job in making sure they help manage this over-the-counter issue and putting these kids onto the school roster before the school year starts so we can make adjustments to our programs,” Shama said.
Francis Lewis was named as the second most-overcrowded high school in the city, according to a report recently released by the city Independent Budget Office. Forest Hills HS was named as the most overcrowded.
Shama said he would ideally like to see there be about 2,800 to 3,000 students in the building and have classes that average around 24 students — though he called this a “pipe dream.”
“We deal with the overcrowding,” Shama said. “It’s still a great school. Kids are getting a great education.”
Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.