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State attaches several strings to city's bid for "turnaround" aid

Three months after the city asked the state for federal funds to fuel school ‘turnaround’ efforts, the state has responded — with a resounding “maybe.”

In a letter released late Friday, State Education Commissioner John King said the way the city plans to overhaul 24 struggling schools meets the state’s requirements. But he said he would only hand over the federal funds, known as School Improvement Grants, if the city meets steep conditions.

To meet some of those conditions, the city would need to come out ahead in arbitration with the teachers union over collective bargaining rules at the 24 schools. It must also prove that community members were looped in on the city’s planning process.

The arbitration, which covers a dispute over whether the city may use a process outlined in the teachers union contract for schools that close and reopen (called 18-D), is set to end next week. If the union comes out ahead, hiring and firing decisions at the schools would be reversed and, according to King’s letter, the city would not be able to collect the SIG grants, which total nearly $60 million.

Earlier this year, King said he saw the city’s proposal as “approvable.” But he stayed quiet as the city signaled it would not force schools to adhere to a central requirement of turnaround set by the U.S. Department of Education: that they replace at least 50 percent of their teachers.

King’s letter today says the city must meet the federal government’s staffing requirements.

State turnaround advisors say “the percentage matters,” SED spokesman Dennis Tompkins said over email. “18-D is the mechanism to achieve the required percentage.”

DOE spokeswoman Erin Hughes repeated Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg’s promise that the city has given schools “no quota” for rehiring or replacing teachers.

King said the city would also need to provide the state with reams of documentation showing that it had consulted “stakeholders” about its plans to overhaul the schools before July 1. He said the city must prove that it provided the SIG applications to the teachers and principals unions and leadership teams at each of the schools. The city must also provide comments those groups submitted about the plans and a summary of changes the city made in response, or an explanation for why it will not make certain changes.

In the decision letter, King also demonstrated a continued awareness of the concerns that critics of the Bloomberg administration’s school reforms have levied. As he did when approving school closures last year, he warned that the state does not want to see needy students negatively affected by the overhauls.

And King announced that the city had already promised to work to reduce the concentrations of high-need students at the schools. The schools have large numbers of students with special needs, English language learners, and low-performing students, which their defenders argued have set them up to fail.

The city also promised to distribute one category of high-need students, “over-the-counters” who arrive mid-year, across a wider set of schools. Struggling schools tend to enroll large numbers of students who were enrolled through the over-the-counter process, which brings in about 50,000 new students each year to the system.

The city’s promises reflect an admission that the city’s school choice and enrollment policies might not have allowed all schools to flourish.

“We acknowledge that there is still more work to do,” city officials wrote in a letter to SED earlier this month, after state officials raised questions about the enrollment process. “Over the past 18 months, NYC has been working with the New York State Education Department to address its concerns about situations where our choice-based system may be leading to an over-concentration of students with disabilities, English language learners, and/or students that are performing below proficiency in certain schools.”

That letter details plans to reform the city’s enrollment system and the over-the counter process. It also provides data to show that students at most of the SIG high schools entered ninth grade performing below the average of other students in their boroughs on state tests. Many of the SIG middle and high schools also enrolled a higher percentage of special education students and English language learners than the average for their districts, according to the data. Defenders of the schools had argued that their concentration of high-needs students had set them up to fail.

In a letter to King submitted today, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott vowed that the city would monitor and refine its enrollment practices to reduce the high concentrations of needy students in certain high schools around the city.

King suggested that the city’s turnaround gambit might not be assured state approval earlier this month, while speaking to a group of teachers in the Educators 4 Excellence advocacy group.

“However that turns out, New York City, I think, ought to follow through on its commitment to trying to improve teaching and learning in those buildings,” he said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city education officials have vowed to go ahead with their turnaround plans even without SED approval and the accompanying grants, which would funnel at least $1.5 million to each school.

The state revoked similar grants awarded to those and other schools as a consequence for stalled district-union teacher evaluation negotiations late last year. The schools were using those grants to fund professional development, technology purchases, cosmetic changes, and hire additional teachers known as “master” and “turnaround” teachers.

Here’s the letter that King sent to city officials today:

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