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Union president gets an early start on yearly class size battle

After warning that overcrowding in public schools will be worse this year, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew is trying to publicly assure his members that he plans to be tough on the issue.

During the first few weeks of school in New York City, class sizes fluctuate as new students arrive and others transfer schools, making it difficult to pin down which buildings will experience severe overcrowding. But the union is already going to court to reduce class size at one chronically overcrowded Queens high school.

The United Federation of Teachers asked for a court order today that union officials said would confirm an arbitrator’s March order that the Department of Education reduce class sizes at Francis Lewis High School. City officials said that they have a plan to lower class sizes and that the arbitrator has given them until September 23 to comply.

“It is hard to understand why the UFT would prematurely rush to court when we’ve been working together, with an arbitrator, to find a sustainable solution for the school,” said a spokesman for the DOE in an email.

A union official said that without the court order, Francis Lewis teachers would have to file new grievances and go through arbitration again.

The union’s press release:

UFT Sues Chancellor Klein To Ensure Lower Class Size at Queens High School

Union asks court to confirm arbitration decision ordering DOE to lower class size at Francis Lewis High

The United Federation of Teachers today sued the Department of Education and Chancellor Joel Klein to ensure that the DOE follows the order of an arbitrator to reduce class sizes at Francis Lewis High School, which last year kept more than 2,000 students in oversize classes for an entire semester.

If it fails this fall to follow a court order enforcing the arbitrator’s decision and the class size limits at Francis Lewis, the Department of Education could be held in contempt.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said: “During the last school year the UFT went to arbitration because the DOE refused to lower class sizes at Francis Lewis High School, one of the most overcrowded schools in the city. On March 10, 2010, an arbitrator ordered the DOE to comply with the class size guidelines in the contract, but the department not only refused to do so, it actually increased the number of oversize classes at the school. We are asking the court to act now to help make sure that students are not victimized again.”

The March 10, 2010 decision by arbitrator Jeffery B. Tener ruled that “the Department is directed to comply with the contractual class size limitations by equalizing classes to the extent possible and/or by adding additional classes.” The UFT lawsuit charges that despite Tener’s ruling the DOE “continued to add more students to the oversized Francis Lewis High School classes.”

In his March 10, 2010 decision Tener noted that the school in Fresh Meadows, Queens had a history of class size complaints, including incidents in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Last year the school had more than 4,500 students, approximately 175 percent of capacity.

The court action was brought Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Under New York State law, an arbitrator’s finding is enforceable by the State Supreme Court.

High school class size limits, in addition to 34 students in most academic classes, include 28 in trade shop subjects, and 50 in most gym and music classes.

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