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Administrators warn of leadership vacuum at schools in limbo

A day after the city lost its latest bid to move forward with its plans to overhaul the staffs of 24 “turnaround” schools, school leaders say they are sitting on their hands as they await guidance from the Department of Education.

Reiterating comments he made during a Monday radio appearance, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today that his goal is for the schools to open smoothly this fall, according to SchoolBook. He also said he would meet with their principals next week.

But administrators at the schools today said they had heard nothing concrete. The department has declined to comment on its plans for the schools since a judge ruled on Tuesday that the city would have to reinstate teachers and principals cut loose from the schools while it appeals an arbitrator’s ruling blocking the staffing changes. The teachers and principals unions said their members have not gotten any updates on how they can reclaim their jobs at the schools.

And administrators at some of the schools say they can’t see how the next school year can open smoothly when it’s not even clear who is in charge right now.

“We’d really love to get back in there and do what we do,” said one administrator who was ousted last month but is now entitled to return. “I should be preparing stuff for the year. Seeing what kids didn’t graduate, why they didn’t; calling up kids who didn’t come to summer school; attendance outreach; planning freshman orientation — it’s a million things we’d be doing. And I’d be doing regular hirings, because we had a lot of retirements this year.”

The department’s preferred principals were in place at 18 of the 24 schools before the end of the school year, and they cannot be displaced. But at six schools, principals from the 2011-2012 school year can reclaim their jobs under the arbitrator’s ruling.

The displaced administrators are “basically not doing anything right now” while the department’s choices to lead the reform efforts report to their former schools, according to one administrator who is entitled to return. The administrator said some of the ousted principals are taking vacations this week and others are twiddling their thumbs in temporary positions at the school network level.

The people the department had picked to replace them are at a standstill, too.

“It’s been kind of hard, honestly, because how could I make plans for a school I don’t know I’m the principal of?” said Evan Schwartz, who had been chosen to lead Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School, from his seat in the principals office today.

He added, “If you ask hundreds of kids, where are you going to school in the fall, they’d say ‘I don’t know. I know its the building on 151st street.’ If somebody walked in here asking to speak to the principal, who do they speak to?”

Until several months ago, Schwartz worked as the principal of the Bronx School of Law and Finance. Now, he said, that school is also suffering because the assistant principal who has been filling in for him could be bumped out of her new position if he returns to his original school.

“If I knew I was principal of Alfred E. Smith, I’d have so much work to do. And If I knew I was principal of Bronx Finance, I’d have so much work to do,” he said. “But my AP doesn’t know if she’s the principal or not. This upheaval is affecting way more than the 24 schools.”

Schwartz said in the meantime he has been helping department officials plan changes to Smith’s programmatic offerings, culture, and scheduling. He said he thought those changes could be implemented with or whether major staffing changes.

But he worried that the unions’ lawsuit against the staffing overhaul had further complicated the already rushed turnaround process.

“UFT, CSA, you didn’t save the day, you made it harder,” he said. “Turnaround wasn’t going to be bad for the schools, bringing in new money, new programs, fresh staff. But to do this by end of June after the teachers have left is just terrible, really, horrible timing.”

Officials from the United Federation of Teachers and principals union said they anticipated meeting with department officials in the next few days to hash out logistics for the schools. But they noted that the department canceled meetings that had been scheduled two weeks ago, after the arbitrator first ruled in union’s favor.

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg, one of the turnaround plan’s main architects, told reporters on Tuesday to refer questions about staffing and planning at the schools to city lawyers. The city’s top lawyer, Michael Cardozo, expressed confidence that the city would win its bid to override the arbitrator’s ruling. But he gave no hints about the city’s short-term plans for the schools.

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