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Klein dials back, but doesn't withdraw, emergency powers threat

In a major reversal, the city said today it would ask a Lower East Side charter school to find a new space instead of expanding inside its current building.

Facing a threat of litigation, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is backing down, at least for the moment, from using new emergency powers to allow Girls Preparatory Charter School to add a middle school inside the PS 188 building. Klein said last week that he would use the powers to override a state ruling barring the expansion, but the city never took the steps to make his declaration official.

Klein said he hasn’t ruled out taking those steps in the future.

“Given the threats of litigation and continuing uncertainty, we are working with the Board of Girls Prep to find a stable solution for these young women,” he said. “At the same time, we remain prepared to exercise our emergency powers should that become necessary.”

Meanwhile, Girls Prep will delay the first day of classes for some students by up to a month while it searches for more space.

The Lower East Side has been divided for months over the city’s plan to let Girls Prep add middle school grades in the same building, PS 188, that houses its elementary school. The building also houses PS 94, a school for autistic children. Parents there charged that the city hadn’t given them enough information about how Girls Prep’s expansion would affect their school.

State Education Commissioner David Steiner surprised the city by siding with PS 94 parents earlier this month when he ruled against the space plan. In response, Klein said he would use emergency powers given to him by the 2009 school governance law to go ahead with expanding Girls Prep. But the voices opposing Klein’s move were loud and plentiful.

Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that provides legal assistance for families of students with special needs, informed the city last week that it would seek a restraining order to prevent Klein from exercising emergency powers, executive director Kim Sweet told me today.

AFC’s threat was enough to make Girls Prep start looking for another place to open its middle school.

“The threat by Advocates for Children to challenge an emergency declaration has created an unacceptable level of uncertainty for us so we are being forced to find another option,” said Kim Morcate, principal of the middle school.

A last-minute hunt to find space for 125 fifth- and sixth-graders means the middle school won’t open on Aug. 16 as planned. Instead, Morcate said Girls Prep hopes to open its middle school “within four weeks,” or around the same time as city schools open for the 2010-2011 school year. Girls Prep’s elementary school students will start Aug. 23 as planned.

“Delaying the start of school for these students is in no way ideal,” said Natalie Ravitz, a Department of Education spokeswoman. “But after consulting with Girls Prep, PS 94, local elected officials, parents and advocates, we feel it is incumbent upon the department to exhaust all other options before issuing an emergency declaration.”

Ravitz also said that the city still considers PS 188 an “appropriate” home for Girls Prep’s expansion.

“They have adequate space available and it would not result in a single special-education student being moved,” she said. “But if we can identify alternative space for one year — whether private or public — we feel it would be the best outcome for all involved.”

“Given the threats of litigation and continuing uncertainty, we are working with the Board of Girls Prep to find a stable solution for these young women. At the same time, we remain prepared to exercise our emergency powers should that become necessary.”

Morcate said Girls Prep has already begun identifying space options.

“It’s promising that there may some attempt to find another alternative,” Sweet said. “But it’s not over yet.”

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