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As terms end, council members push to curb school closures

The City Council was host to a fresh round of familiar debates today, as education committee members sparred with Chancellor Dennis Walcott about central Bloomberg-era education policies: school closures and co-locations.

The committee proposed three resolutions, all curtailing aspects of the process that allows the city to change what schools operate in what buildings. One would require school closures or phase-outs to be approved by the local Community Education Council before being voted on by the Panel for Educational Policy, requiring a change in state law and amounting to a reversal of mayoral control. Another resolution calls for a moratorium on school closures and co-locations for a year, something that mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio has said he supports. The third calls for additional communication with parents about school closures and co-locations.

The calendar took center stage at the hearing, given the little time Walcott and Mayor Bloomberg have left in office. Councilman Stephen Levin, who called for an even broader moratorium on all charter school openings in June, pushed Walcott about the proposed co-locations that wouldn’t take effect until a new mayor is in office — which he said would put schools and the city “on a collision course.”

“Isn’t it time to leave well enough alone?” Levin asked.

“I am chancellor until December 31 and I have a responsibility to our 1.1 million students,” Walcott responded.

When Councilman Lew Fidler raised similar concerns later, Walcott said he wouldn’t base his decision-making on assumptions about candidates. “I work for a person who is in office right now, and I am in office right now as chancellor,” he said.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew testified in support of the resolutions, calling on the council to go further in requiring financial information from charter schools requesting public space. Groups that advocate on behalf of charter schools, including StudentsFirstNY, testified that continuing to allow charter schools to share district space is important, a point that they plan to make again next week at a large rally.

Advocates for Children of New York, which has been critical of some Bloomberg-era education policies, split the difference, with executive director Kim Sweet submitting testimony supporting a one-year moratorium on school closings and additional parental notification, but opposing the resolution that requests veto power for the Community Education Councils.

“When it comes to some of the most disadvantaged students in the school system, such as students who are overage and under-credited or students who are involved in the justice system, we desperately need more schools and programs that can meet their needs,” Sweet said.

The City Council’s role in education is largely symbolic, and members don’t have authority over how the city uses school buildings or over the existence of mayoral control. But the council has long been a center of anti-charter school and co-location sentiment, and outgoing education committee chair Robert Jackson has been one of the charter sector’s most vocal opponents.

Charter school advocates had expressed hope that this year’s elections would shift the tone, but many of the most prominent pro-charter council candidates lost their primary races, including Kathleen Daniel, Chris Banks, and Ken Biberaj, who all had support from Teach for America founder Whitney Tilson. Robert Cornegy, who has three children in charter schools, did win in District 36, replacing Al Vann, who endorsed him. On the other side of the debate, charter schools opponent Noah Gotbaum also lost in the primary.

Still, the committee tried to leave things on a respectful note. Even some of the most critical council members praised the chancellor for his work, and Walcott — who has made it clear he will not be the schools chancellor under the next mayor — thanked a few council members for their efforts as well.

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