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Candidates' criticism of school closures includes call for a halt

After closing 140 schools since taking over the system in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg shouldn’t be allowed to shut down any more, according to Bill Thompson, who would like to succeed the mayor.

Thompson today announced that he has been lobbying legislators in Albany to impose a moratorium on school closures in New York City until after Bloomberg leaves office at the end of 2013.

Thompson, who narrowly lost to Bloomberg in 2009, said he had heard rumors from sources “inside and outside” the Department of Education, including legislators, that the Bloomberg administration is planning to close 75 schools next year.

“Why would we allow that to happen in the last year of a Bloomberg administration?” Thompson said. “We need to be protected against the DOE right now.”

Bloomberg dismissed Thompson’s comment this afternoon, saying, “We can’t possibly know what we’re going to do next year.” But he added that his administration would “keep doing what we do right up until December 31, 2013” when his term ends.

“What we do” this year has included more school closures than in any previous year. If the Panel for Educational Policy approves the 23 school turnaround proposals before it next week, a total of 49 schools will close or begin to close this summer. In 2011, the city decided to phase out 22 schools.

Thompson called for the temporary ban on shutting schools at a press briefing about a new report outlining alternatives to the city’s approach to school closures. The report, produced by a committee convened last fall by the Coalition of Educational Justice, proposes that the city establish “Success Initiative Zones” where schools would be identified as struggling and given extra supports long before the city contemplates closure. It also highlights nearly a dozen groups and models that have shown promise in helping struggling schools improve in the city and elsewhere.

Two other candidates at the briefing, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, each said they would not support a moratorium because it is possible that some schools would warrant closure. But they said closure should be considered only after the city has tried valiantly to improve a school.

“I wouldn’t support one size fits all because if there’s a school where we’ve exhausted all options, I wouldn’t want to tie anyone’s hands,” Stringer said.

“[Bloomberg] has made clear that he’s closure-happy at this point, so I would not be shocked if that were the number,” de Blasio told reporters. “But I can’t in good conscience support a moratorium.”

CEJ had united the candidates against school closures before. In January, they decried the city’s school closure policies during a rally outside City Hall.

The candidates, who represent half of the people who have waded into mayoral campaigning so far, were divided on another issue that could shape up to play a major role in next year’s race: how the city’s system of school governance should be changed, if at all, when mayoral control comes up for renewal in 2015.

Stringer and Thompson both said that problems with mayoral control, which Bloomberg won in 2002, have been more about style than substance so far. “I still support mayoral control,” Thompson said. “I think it’s more about who the mayor is.”

But de Blasio told reporters that he would voluntarily cede some control by empowering the PEP, the citywide school board, to weigh policy decisions more meaningfully. The panel has essentially been a rubber-stamp for Bloomberg’s policies, particularly after 2004, when the mayor abruptly fired several of his appointees who had planned to vote against one of his proposals.

De Blasio said he had not determined exactly how the panel should change — altering the balance of mayoral and non-mayoral appointees is one option; another is promising fixed terms to panel members — but that the city should “not continue the status quo.”

He said elected parent councils in each district should receive some say in school closures, openings, and co-locations in their area. Currently, the councils have authority only over school zoning, but Assemblyman Keith Wright has proposed legislation to give the councils veto power over city plans to require district and charter schools to share space.

Thompson said he would like the councils, known as Community Education Councils, to have “real roles” but that he had not determined what that should be. Stringer said he would first work to implement a proposal he outlined last fall to strengthen capacity on the councils and improve their elections process, which last year was marred by especially serious complications.

“Only when you fix the CECs would I give them full authority,” Stringer said.

The candidates were united on another issue gripping Albany at the moment: whether to allow the results of teacher evaluations to be made public, as happened earlier this year in New York City, or keep them behind closed doors. The candidates all said they wanted to keep parents informed but did not see a need for teachers’ ratings to wind up in newspapers.

“I do not believe that we should humiliate our teachers,” Stringer told reporters. “To shield some of this from the light of day makes good sense.”

The report about alternatives to school closures is below.

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