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For opponents of mayoral control, fight starts with co-locations

When the Bloomberg Administration threatened to shut down a school in Assemblyman Keith Wright’s district this year, Wright vowed to create legislation to repeal mayoral control of the schools.

The city didn’t go through with the closure, but Wright is making good on his word — at least to a degree — by introducing a bill that would chip away at one of the mayor’s most controversial powers: the ability to install schools inside other schools’ buildings.

The bill would require elected parent councils known as Community Education Councils to approve any co-location proposal before it may go into effect.

Co-location proposals often generate heated debate within districts, particularly when the city is proposing to move a charter school into a district building. The CECs regularly play a vocal role in opposing charter school co-locations within their district schools, but they have no power to stop them or any other co-location.

Instead, the Panel for Educational Policy, which has never rejected a city proposal, must approve co-locations.

Parents, politicians, advocacy groups and representatives of at least three CECs rallied infront of Department of Education headquarters this morning to show their support for Wright’s bill, saying they hope it will pass because the CECs already must vote on zone lines within their districts.

Co-locations were the only subject of today’s rally; but according to Noah Gotbaum, a member of CEC for District 3, the CECs are hoping the co-location bill will be the first step toward legislation restricting the city’s ability to close schools, and eventually leading to the outright end of mayoral control.

“We’re not here just for this piece,” he told me. “We’re about co-locations, closings, and changing the PEP. So this is just a start.”

“Our understanding is this is a sequential process,” Gotbaum added, and Assemblyman Wright and his supporters, “are pushing this one first, but the closure piece will be close behind.”

Separately, City Councilman Al Vann is drafting a city resolution calling on the state legislature to amend the mayoral control law to give CECs the power to vote on both colocations and school closure decisions.

Joined by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, ralliers said co-locations crystalize the unequal treatment of district and charter schools within the public education system. Giving the CECs the power to prevent co-locations, they said, would protect community schools against the pitfalls of sharing space—the loss of certain classrooms, computer labs and art studios, inflexible schedules, and the shared use the auditorium, gym, and cafeteria.

Carl Pressley, the vice president of the PTA at Wadleigh, which was spared closure this year but is set to begin sharing space with a Harlem Success Academy charter school in the fall, said he worries the performing arts school will have to give up much-needed classrooms on the building’s first floor.

“The first floor of Wadleigh is our arts department and dance studio,” he said. “We can’t improve as an arts school without them.”

Pressley and other parents organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, the Coalition for Educational Justice and New York Communities for Change portrayed co-locations as a constant struggle for space that undermines every school community. Mulgrew pointed to those sentiments as the reasoning behind the proposed bill.

“Co-location has been such a hotbed because it has caused this pitting of one school community against another,” Mulgrew told reporters. “It was never designed to be done that way but that’s the way they have managed it at the Department of Ed. As parents have said, a school building is an assest to the community and the mayor does not own it.”

A representative from Wright’s office said he is hopeful that the bill will pass, pointing to the show of support provided by nearly a dozen local elected officials participating in the rally.

This is not the first legislative change related to the CECs to be proposed this year. Last month, Assemblyman Peter Rivera and State Sen. Marty Golden introduced a bill that would reserve one of the 11 seats on each council for a charter parent. At the time, parent activists said they could not understand why charter parents would want to have seats on boards that don’t have any authority over charter schools. Wright’s bill would allow CECs to make decisions about charter schools in their communities for the first time.

The city is undecided over whether to support the bill, citing concerns that inclusion in the CEC could compromise charter schools’ autonomy.