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Judge ends year's turnaround saga with a fast, firm "no" to city

Teachers union attorney Adam Ross and Secretary Michael Mendel talk to reporters after the judge ruled to uphold the arbitration.
Teachers union attorney Adam Ross and Secretary Michael Mendel talk to reporters after the judge ruled to uphold the arbitration.
Caroline Bauman

The Bloomberg administration’s Hail Mary effort to shake up the staffs at 24 struggling schools fell short today when a State Supreme Court judge shot down the city’s request to move forward.

An arbitrator, Scott Buchheit, ruled late last month that the city’s hiring and firing decisions at the schools — key aspects of the Department of Education’s “turnaround” plans — violated the city’s contract with the teachers union. The schools were not closing, Buchheit ruled, so the city could not invoke article 18-D of the contract, which sets out staffing rules for schools that are shut down.

In a lawsuit filed quickly afterwards, the city contended that Buchheit had overstepped his bounds. Lobis signaled earlier this month that she thought the city was unlikely to win that argument when she rejected its request to be allowed to continue rehiring and replacing teachers at the schools while she considered its appeal.

Today, after listening to city and union lawyers lay out their cases for 45 minutes this afternoon, Lobis retired to her chambers with a warning that she might return with a decision today.

Seven minutes later, she emerged to say that she had come to a conclusion: The arbitrator’s decision would stand.

“I could spend weeks trying to tease out an erudite decision,” Lobis said, but she added that all parties sought a speedy resolution and the legal issues at stake were not complicated.

The city will appeal Lobis’s decision, according to a statement from Michael Cardozo, the city’s top lawyer.

“The mayor and chancellor will not allow failing schools to deprive our students of the high-quality education they deserve. Although we will of course comply with the judge’s ruling, we strongly disagree with it — and we will be appealing,” he said.

The appeal cannot be heard before the fall because the Appellate Division does not sit during the summer. That means that there is now no chance of further reversals to staffing decisions at the schools, and the arbitrator’s ruling that teachers and administrators who were cut loose can reclaim their positions will stand, according to Georgia Pestana, the city’s labor and employment law chief. She said the city’s appeal is aimed at clearing the way for the turnaround model to be used in the future.

“There’s not enough time to get it done for this fall. These schools have to be ready to be open in September,” Pestana said.

Opening successfully in the fall is likely to be a challenge for some of the schools. The turnaround tug-of-war has left many of the schools without a clear tally of who works in them or what their needs will be in September.

“It is now time to prepare the teachers, principals and school communities for the opening of school and we hope that the mayor will spend as much effort on helping struggling schools succeed as he does on his own political needs,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement.

The United Federation of Teachers’ top lawyer, Adam Ross, said after the hearing that the department could carry out different plans to improve the schools, including those that were underway at most of them before the city turned to turnaround.

“Most of what the DOE proposed to do for these turnaround plans were part of the DOE’s original ‘transformation’ and ‘restart’ plans, and there is absolutely nothing in the contracts that prevents them from implementing them,” Ross said. “We encourage the Department of Education to do what it can to help every school succeed. If they have actions they want to take in these schools, whether it be curriculum or other changes, they’re free to do so.”

Earlier today, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the department had taken a wait-and-see approach to planning for the schools.

“I have two plans in place and we’ve been operating waiting to see what the decisions will be. If we lose, we’ll put a plan in place. My staff have been working extremely hard and have been looking at a variety of scenarios, budget situations, staffing situations,” he told reporters while visiting a summer dance program in Washington Heights.

“The vision, the goals of the school, trying to create a new atmosphere at those schools — all those things will be pushed aside,” Walcott said. “Our goal is to make sure we provide a high-quality education for the 30,000 students who attend these schools. Unfortunately, that may not happen.”

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