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Looking back on school closure vote, officials question rationale

More than a month after the citywide school board voted to close 19 schools, City Council and Comptroller John Liu are reexamining the criteria that city officials used to declare the schools failures.

Liu, who campaigned for comptroller on the promise of auditing the Department of Education’s data, announced today that his office is beginning an investigation of the DOE’s progress reports — the annual report cards that assign each school a letter grade, largely based on students’ test scores. Later this afternoon, the City Council’s education committee held a hearing where members accused department officials of targeting large, struggling high schools without considering what would become of their current students. Department officials defended the schools they chose to close, citing the schools’ abysmal graduation rate.

“This is not a random list,” said Deputy Chancellor for Strategy and Innovation, John White. “These are the lowest performers even considered among a set of schools where students are not achieving at acceptable levels.”

After a month in which nearly every weeknight was occupied by a school closing hearing, many council members remain unconvinced that the department’s choices were reasonable.

“The DOE failed to follow its own criteria in selecting some schools for closure,” said Councilman Robert Jackson, who chairs the education committee. “According to one analysis, 14 of the 20 schools originally targeted for closing scored above the basic criteria for being considered for closure.”

Councilman James Vacca accused department officials of not having a plan for what to do with the students who would have gone to Columbus High School, which will being phasing out next school year. Their decision to close Columbus High School would doom other large high schools in his Bronx district, he said.

“The kids from Columbus will go to Lehman High School, where there are 4,400 students,” he said. “I don’t know how many more kids you can put into Lehman High School, but you’ll keep putting them there until two years from now when you close Lehman.”

Michael Mulgrew, head of the city’s teachers union, testified that along with filing a lawsuit to stop the school closures, the union is asking for a temporary restraining order to stop eighth grade students from being matched with high schools for next year. Right now, students can’t be paired with the closing schools the union is hoping to keep open.

Citing email exchanges between charter school operator Eva Moskowitz and Chancellor Joel Klein, Mulgrew said the entire school closure process had been tainted by charter operators’ influence.

“It is the DOE’s blatant — and now public — attempts to appease the demands of some charter school operators who are making high salaries that really call their motives and procedures into question,” he said. “As we have learned by recent news reports, the DOE clearly prefers to close neighborhood schools rather than support them in order to accommodate charter school expansion.”

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