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Confusion reigns at schools affected by arbitrator's hiring rule

Nearly a week after an independent arbitrator ruled that teachers cut loose from 24 “turnaround” schools could have their jobs back, confusion reigns at the schools.

The city’s turnaround plans involved closing the schools and immediately reopening them with new names, new leaders, and many new teachers. But an arbitrator rolled back those plans last Friday when he ruled that the schools could not replace teachers using its chosen strategy.

Shortly after the arbitrator’s decision, teachers at the schools received a celebratory email from the United Federation of Teachers, which had sued the city over the hiring procedures in place at the schools.

Earlier this week, the city filed suit to get the arbitrator’s decision overturned, and a judge is likely to consider the case early next week.

For now, the Department of Education has suspended the hiring committees that had been meeting to consider teacher candidates, according to teachers union officials.

But during the disjointed first week of summer vacation, it has given teachers and principals no guidance about how they can reclaim their positions, according to officials of the unions that represent both sets of educators.

And at least one interim principal who seems likely to be bumped by the arbitrator’s decision is reporting for work as usual.

At Long Island City High School, Vivian Selenikas, whom the city had chosen as the new school’s principal, was in her office shortly before noon today. “I am the interim acting principal. I will be here today,” Selenikas told GothamSchools.

Until last week, Long Island City’s principal was Maria Mamo-Vacacela. But the Department of Education picked Selenikas, who had been working as a network leader supporting the school, to lead its turnaround efforts. Under the terms of the arbitrator’s decision, which the city and unions agreed to in advance, Mamo-Vacacela may return to the school if she wants to.

At the school’s graduation ceremony last week, Mamo-Vacacela’s impassioned speech suggested that she was not leaving willingly. “Everyone thinks that Long Island City High School is going to die and not be reborn,” she said. “We will not let 30 years pass until Long Island City High School as five continuous words exists again.”

Today, Selenikas said that her reform plans had not changed since the meeting in April where she introduced herself to Long Island City families. But she did say that her staffing plans were now up in the air. “Hiring is one of the items under review,” she said.

Asked whether she had received guidance about whether she would remain at the school, Selenikas said, “I’m telling you all I know.”

The confusion is evident down to how the city is branding the schools. Schools that were open last year have had their Department of Education websites shut down and replaced by pages for the schools slated to replace them. A search for Lehman High School turns up only a page for Throggs Neck High School at the Lehman Campus.

But at the same time, a Lehman teacher reported, the school has stopped using stationery with the Throggs Neck name. Last week, memos about the summer session that’s now underway had used the new name, but official communication now comes on Lehman letterhead, the teacher said.

The city had scheduled meetings with the teachers and principals union for first thing this week. But it canceled those meetings Monday morning as city lawyers prepared legal action.

A main agenda item would have been to figure out a mechanism by which teachers displaced from the schools could reclaim their positions, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said last week. Several principals are entitled to return their schools in addition to Mamo-Vacacera, as well.

Another issue that needs to be worked out is whether principals of the schools will still be partially exempt from hiring restrictions that require most additions to teaching rosters to come from within the system. Because the city considered the replacement schools new schools, it was allowing them to bring on as many as 40 percent new teachers. Now principals don’t know whether the people they’ve offered jobs to will be able to join their staffs, even if their hiring wouldn’t conflict with an excessed teacher taking his or her job back.

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