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City uses emergency power to proceed with charter expansion

The city will forge ahead with a plan to give a Lower East Side charter school more space — even though the state ruled this week to throw that plan out.

The move takes advantage of an “emergency” provision in state law and will allow Girls Prep Charter School to expand into middle school grades in a building the charter currently shares with two district schools.

Earlier this week, State Education Commissioner David Steiner threw out the city’s plan. Steiner ruled that the city did not properly report the impact the charter school’s expansion would have on the students at one of the district schools, P.S. 94, which serves only students with autism. (You can read Steiner’s decision in full here.)

The law says that the chancellor can unilaterally change how a building is used when it is “immediately necessary for the preservation of student health, safety or general welfare.” The change can be in effect for six months while the city goes through the full public approval process required under state law.

A city rule also mandates that the Department of Education post its reasons for the emergency action on its website. Advocates who brought the complaint against the city said today that they were waiting for the city to publish its justification before deciding how to proceed.

“To me, it does not seem like an emergency, given that [city officials] knew about this problem and our concerns in March, and their failure to address those concerns is what’s given rise to the commissioner’s ruling,” said Rebecca Shore, director of litigation for Advocates for Children, the group that filed the complaint on behalf of P.S. 94 parents.

A spokesman for the city, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, would not speak to the city’s justification but said its statement would be posted to the Department of Education’s website “very soon.” (I’ll update when the city releases the statement.)

In the short term, the move means the city and Girls Prep will not need to find space for its 100 middle school students whom the charter was planning on housing in the Lower East Side building in the fall.

The city has argued that it did not need to detail the impact of the charter school’s expansion on P.S. 94 students because it often needs to relocate special education programs on short notice to effectively serve the needs of its disabled students. In his ruling, Steiner said that the city could invoke the chancellor’s emergency powers if such sudden moves are needed.

The city’s original plan proposed to re-site P.S. 94’s fourth and fifth grades, but did not specify where those students would attend school. City officials said today that those students will eventually be moved to two schools nearby P.S. 94’s current East Houston Street location.

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