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Appeals court judges unanimously vote to keep schools open

For the second time, the city’s attempt to close 19 schools has been foiled by the courts.

Five appellate court judges unanimously upheld a lower court ruling today that voided the city’s attempt to shut down the schools. The ruling means that the city will have to re-start the lengthy and arduous process to shutter the schools next year, when the city had hoped to begin closing them.

In March, a state Supreme Court judge ruled that the city did not follow the proper school closure process laid out in state education law. State law requires that the city prepare “educational impact statements,” or EIS’s, that analyze the effect that closing a school will have on the students and surrounding community, as well as hold a series of public hearings with local parent boards.

In their decision (available in full below the jump), the appellate court justices unanimously agreed, saying the city did not follow the legal requirements for a hearing, nor did the city prepare detailed enough impact statements.

“Plainly, the Legislature contemplated that the school community would receive more information than this from the EIS,” the judges’ decision says.

“We are profoundly disappointed by the court’s decision, and are exploring our appellate options,” a lawyer for the city, Michael Cardozo, said in a statement.

UPDATE: Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said today that he was disappointed with the decision but would not challenge it. “The court has ruled that we didn’t meet the requirements of the new law, and we will follow the court’s decision and make sure that we meet those requirements in the future,” he said.

But nothing in the court’s decision disputed the city’s power to close schools it deems as failing so long as it follows the proper process, and Klein indicated that the city would relaunch the process next year.

“We are proceeding with plans to open new schools in the fall,” Klein said. “And we will continue to work, in accordance with the law, to close schools that are failing our students and replace them with small schools, which have been proven to be more effective.”

The city had argued that it “substantially complied” with the law. In May, city lawyers told the panel of appellate judges that even if the Department of Education did not closely follow the legal requirements for releasing information and holding public hearings, the effect was negligible since parents and community members could access the information on their own.

But the judges flatly rejected that argument. “Contrary to respondents’ contention, the statutory violations are not ‘so insignificant as to be totally inconsequential,'” the ruling says.

City teachers union President Michael Mulgrew, who brought the lawsuit against the city, applauded the ruling. “No one is above the law, and every court that has looked at this issue has ruled decisively that the Department of Education violated the law when it tried to close these schools,” Mulgrew said.

Some of the schools may phase out their incoming grade in the fall anyway because of low enrollment after the city discouraged parents from sending their students there.

The full appellate court decision is below:

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