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City and teachers union return to court in turnaround saga today

The city and the teachers union are back in court this afternoon to argue over the fates of 24 so-called turnaround schools.

Late last month, an arbitrator found 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. With just weeks to go before the school year starts, the city is rolling back those plans and telling teachers and administrators who had been cut loose how to reclaim their positions, in accordance with the arbitrator’s remedy.

But the city doesn’t want to give up the chance at using the turnaround model. So it is still arguing that the arbitrator overstepped his bounds and asking the State Supreme Court to overturn his decision.

Two weeks ago, Judge Joan Lobis rejected the city’s request to be allowed to continue rehiring and replacing teachers at the schools while she considers the appeal. At the time, Lobis signaled that she did not think the city would be likely to win the case in the end.

That’s what a city attorney who specializes in labor relations also told GothamSchools before the first hearing with Lobis. The city agreed to independent arbitration in the first place, and courts do not like overturning arbitrators, said the attorney, Steven Landis.

“The courts place great deference on a decision made by an arbitrator, so the arbitrator can make decisions without fear of being overruled,” Landis said. “If an agreement has been made to arbitrate, the court says, ‘Arbitrate it, don’t come to me.’”

No matter how the city’s appeal turns out, some questions remain unanswered. It is still not clear who exactly will be staffing the schools in September, whether any portions of the planned reforms will be carried out this year, and whether any of the 24 schools will be eligible federal School Improvement Grants. State Education Commissioner John King, who is tasked with administering the federal funds in New York, told the city it would be able to receive the funds only if the schools followed the federal requirement about replacing at least 50 percent of teachers.

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