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PEP okays slate of co-locations but tables some contract votes

More than 60 parents, teachers and students trekked to Chelsea last night to beg Panel for Educational Policy members to reject a slate of space-sharing proposals.

As usual, the panel approved all of the proposals — but when it came time to vote on a series of contracts later in the evening, three were tabled unexpectedly after several members said they could not cast impartial votes.

Three panel members who were appointed by Mayor Bloomberg said their ties to the City University of New York were too close to allow them to vote on contracts relating to CUNY. After they recused themselves, an unusual occurrence, four panel members who comprise a consistent opposition block also said they would not cast votes on the contract, making it impossible for the contracts to get enough votes to pass.

The panel did approve a $20 million, three-year contract for six nonprofit groups that have been working since last summer in 14 schools that were supposed to get money from the federal government through the School Improvement Grant program. That money did not materialize after the city and teachers union were unable to agree on new teacher evaluations.

Now the city plans to ask the state to restore the funds when it submits applications for “turnaround” at the schools — but the restoration wouldn’t happen until next year. The panel members okayed a $6.5 million payment for the partnerships for this year. The contracts will be canceled next year if the state does not restore the federal funds at the schools, according to a Department of Education spokesman.

The turnaround plans are not on the agenda until next month’s panel meeting, but they came up again and again on Wednesday evening. Several of the proposed co-locations were set for schools that could be closed and reopened under the turnaround program, drawing criticism from parents and students who attended the meeting.

Among the largest groups of frustrated parents and teachers were those from Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx. The city plans to open a new district school inside the building Lehman already shares with Renaissance High School for Musical Theater and Technology and a school for students with disabilities. Nearly two dozen Lehman teachers cheered as several teachers and students — including one dressed as a lion, the school mascot — testified against the plan.

Kevin Kearns, a Lehman teacher who spoke at the meeting, told me the community wanted to “build momentum” before the April panel vote on turnaround with a strong show of force in March.

“My students say to me, ‘Miss, will we have art next year? Miss, will we have basketball next year?’ And I have to tell them I don’t know, because I don’t know what school will be in our building,” Anne Looser, the union chapter leader at Lehman, told the PEP.

At one point, the Lehman lion mascot took the microphone and led the crowd through chants of, “We say no, we say no.”

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg told panel members he believed the co-location plan for Lehman, which involves shrinking Lehman’s enrollment in coming years, is the best course of action for the struggling school.

Parents from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan also turned out to oppose the co-location of several charter schools in various public school buildings, including a school in the Success Academy Network, which has already won panel approval for several controversial expansion plans this year. Families and teachers from the network testified throughout the night, saying that communities in Brooklyn and Manhattan deserve the education that Success offers.

A large group representing the District 75 school P.S. 53 in East New York testified against the plan to move just over half of P.S. 53’s classes to a new building. Parents say the move would effectively destroy the school community, which serves students with severe disabilities.

The panel members approved all 19 school co-locations and re-sitings after more than two and a half hours of public testimony and brief discussion among themselves. The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens borough presidents’ appointees voted no or abstained from voting for the vast majority of the proposals.

After the meeting, Manhattan appointee Patrick Sullivan said he decided to sit out the vote for the CUNY contracts to make a point about the unexamined potential conflicts of interest some mayoral appointees might have. The city will reintroduce those contracts to the panel at a later, yet-to-be-determined date, according to a Department of Education spokesman.