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City formally lodges applications for “turnaround” with the state

More than two months after the city announced plans to “turn around” 33 struggling schools, the Department of Education has asked the state for permission to move forward.

Since Mayor Bloomberg announced the turnaround plans, which would require schools to close and reopen after replacing many of their teachers, the city has begun replacing some principals and asking others to develop plans for their new schools. The city also launched its school closure process by releasing “Education Impact Statements” with details about each turnaround plan.

But until now, the city had not formally informed the state about its plans, even though State Education Commission John King must approve them in order for them to receive federal funding. The department missed a self-imposed deadline to submit the applications in early February and then delayed the submission further as plans for the new schools were being formed.

The department finally turned in the applications late Tuesday, about 24 hours before a spate of city hearings about the turnaround plans was set to begin. Its cover letter, which the city released today, emphasizes that department officials have already spent “several months” preparing for the turnaround processes.

Now, it is up to King to decide whether the city should receive nearly $60 million a year in federal School Improvement Grants for the schools.

There are some signs that King is not thrilled about the turnaround proposals, which the city devised to avoid adopting new teacher evaluations, a top state priority. Earlier this month, he joined Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and others for a visit to William E. Grady Career and Technical High School, one of several turnaround schools to earn high scores according to the city’s performance metrics. Tisch told GothamSchools she was impressed by Grady and concerned that rapid change would undermine its improvement.

But King’s discretion is largely limited to whether the city’s plans conform to the federal regulations — an area where it appears likely that some questions will arise. Based on city officials’ description of the plans, King called the plans “approvable” shortly after they were announced and has not commented about them since. He has said it would take him several weeks to rule on applications he receives.

City officials have said they are confident that the applications would be approved. They have also that they would go through with the turnaround process at the 33 schools even if the state does not deliver the SIG grants.

The three-week spree of public hearings about the turnaround plans is a required element of the city’s school closure process. Those hearings begin tonight and do not end until April 19, one week before the citywide school board is set to vote on the closure plans. The board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy, has never rejected a city proposal.

In its cover letter to the applications, the city said it was formally withdrawing its previous application for SIG funding for this year, filed in May 2011. Twenty-seven of the 33 schools had been receiving the funds while undergoing less aggressive overhaul strategies that were cancelled when the city and UFT were unable to agree on new teacher evaluations late last year.

A state labor relations board ruled earlier this month that because the city’s application for this year’s funding was still open, the city would have to reenter talks with the UFT about teacher evaluations in the schools. City officials said immediately that they would contest that ruling and now have removed one of its chief justifications.

But they are still hoping that King will restore this year’s funding, even though the city did not complete the overhaul processes it promised and turnaround wouldn’t start until this summer. “We hope that SED will choose to support the work our [“Persistently Low-Achieving”] schools have done to date by providing them with the critical financial resources through SIG,” the cover letter reads.