Elected parent leaders in Manhattan are asking the city to reverse multiple school decisions, including ones that the city has used to manage severe overcrowding in many neighborhood schools, because they say they should have been involved in making the decisions. The demand comes in a lawsuit filed yesterday, the second in three months against the Department of Education over its adherence to state law that requires parent groups to be consulted before some decisions are made.

Members of the Community Education Council for District 2, which includes the Upper East Side and most of Manhattan below Central Park, say the city violated the law by not consulting them when it made decisions about opening and closing schools and how students were assigned to district schools. With the city teachers union, they filed a lawsuit yesterday over about a dozen cases in recent years where the DOE failed to consult the CEC about major zoning changes (one case dates back to 2001).

The suit details the ways council members say the DOE brusquely informed them of its “unilateral” decisions after they had been made. Among them:

  • The parent council learned about the closing of Bayard Rustin High School in Chelsea by looking at the DOE’s Web site, parents allege.
  • It learned of the opening of another school via an e-mail from DOE official John White: “Good morning. Please see new addition of Quest to Learn School.”
  • This spring, the council found out that students zoned for two schools in Tribeca would be assigned to news schools in the basement of DOE headquarters next fall when parents got a letter informing them about the change.

The suit asks for a reversal of five decisions CEC members say the DOE made without first consulting them: To open the Quest To Learn middle school, to reassign children zoned for PS 41 to schools outside of their zone, to reassign other District 2 kindergartners to schools other than their zoned schools, to assign some children zoned for Tribeca’s PS 234 and PS 89 to the Tweed basement schools, and to phase out the gifted and talented program at PS 116.

The lawsuit’s central complaint is similar to that of a different suit filed against the Department of Education just two months ago by the union, a civil liberties group, and parent leaders from another Manhattan district. That suit was a quick success: The DOE promptly reversed its plan to replace three elementary schools with charter schools. But this suit, which makes more demands of the city, could face a longer battle.

Given the number of demands the suit presents, it would be difficult for the DOE to back down on them as it did to the demand made in the March lawsuit. 

“Generally the courts will not put the genie back in the bottle and undo all of the school closures and reductions and openings that have taken place,” said Brooklyn College professor David Bloomfield, who sits on the Citywide Council on High Schools, the high school parent council. He said the courts might tell the DOE to keep stronger records of consulting with CECs, but the DOE could continue to define “consult” loosely. “Consultation is often just a procedural hurdle for those who do not have good faith with the actual meaning of the word,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the city’s law office declined to comment on the suit, saying the city hasn’t received formal legal papers yet. A DOE spokeswoman said it is department policy not to comment on ongoing litigation.

“The point is some things have to stop,” said District 2 CEC President Rebecca Daniels, who is one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit. “Parents are angry, they’re upset. We had CEC meetings where parents were crying because they lived down the street and couldn’t get into their school.”

The lawsuit comes just weeks before state lawmakers must decide whether to revise the city’s school governance law to create more formal requirements for parent involvement. Daniels pointed out that the CECs were originally created to be a check on mayoral control, and that legally the DOE is not supposed to ignore them. “We should be part of the decision from the get-go,” she said. “We have every right to be involved.”

UFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement that the DOE must involve CECs in decision-making. “The DOE is once again not paying heed to parents’ concerns and to the law,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Parents should have a voice when it comes to their children’s education. And by its unilateral actions in District 2, the DOE is taking away that voice.”

District 2 has been in the spotlight this spring after hundreds of incoming kindergartners were placed on wait lists for their zoned schools in part because of overcrowding that the DOE is still working to address. The lawsuit charges that the DOE violated the law by not setting forth a clear policy for how children would be assigned to wait lists at overenrolled schools.