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City’s bid to site schools before Bloomberg’s exit draws criticism

The Bloomberg administration’s efforts to keep school changes moving after it exits office, which have picked up in recent months, are attracting growing resistance from critics who say the city is overstepping.

On Thursday, the teachers union plans to file suit to stop the Department of Education from crafting plans to open, move, or shrink schools after Mayor Bloomberg exits office at the end of the year. Its press advisory says the department is planning to “cement a dozen or more” school space-sharing plans over the next five months, to begin in 2014 or later.

In fact, the Panel for Educational Policy this year has already approved more than that number of co-locations, grade truncations, and new schools to open eight months after Bloomberg’s replacement takes office. Some of the plans that the panel has signed off on include charter school sitings, which tend to elicit the most controversy of any space changes, and a few would not take effect until 2015, nearly two years into the next mayor’s term.

Department of Education spokesman Devon Puglia said the proposals have all been part of the regular planning process.

“The proposals … are simply conducive to successful and strategic long-term planning. That’s it,” he said. “We always aim to plan as far in advance as possible for all of our schools.”

The advance planning is not a completely new phenomenon: Last year, the Panel for Educational Policy signed off on plans to open new schools this fall. But the pace has picked up, and critics say the plans are Bloomberg’s way for imposing his education policies even after his time in office ends.

The Department of Education has engaged in other efforts to preserve key elements of Bloomberg’s school policies that mayoral candidates say they would pull back on or abandon, even hiring a consulting firm to come up with strategies to “bolster the odds” of seeing one element of the bureaucracy survive.

The space plans “attempt to bind the next mayoral administration to the same failed education agenda” as Bloomberg’s, says the UFT’s advisory about its rally and lawsuit. The union will ask a judge to block the city from carrying out its plans.

A new mayor would be free to abandon the plans once he or she takes office in January, even without judicial intervention. Even if a school’s site is set on paper, it won’t have moved in, and withdrawing the space offer would come with little material cost. For candidates who are campaigning on a platform that includes criticism of co-locations, reversing the Bloomberg administration’s plans could even come with a political upside.

“Anything is possible,” said Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens borough president’s appointee on the panel. “He or she can propose what they want as long as mayoral control is in effect.”

But Fedkowskyj, who often votes in a bloc against the mayor’s proposals, said earlier this year that he hoped Bloomberg’s successor would look to the future instead of the past.

“My hope is that the next mayor focuses energy on what currently works and builds back support from neighborhoods to improve struggling schools,” he said. “Starting over isn’t the answer. It’s should always be a last resort.”

And he said he was not not opposed to the early sitings in theory. “The strategy could benefit communities, but each proposal needs to be examined closely,” he said. “I will vote for the proposals if they are supported by communities and backed by sound policy.”

In June, Fedkowskyj voted to support several grade truncations of schools in Queens that he said had come from communities and to open a new gifted school in the borough that would satisfy local demand. “It’s obvious that the DOE is trying to plan in advance and I can’t say that some of it isn’t needed,” he said.

In other areas of the city, however, local leaders say the advance planning is coming at the cost of communities. On Tuesday, local officials held a press conference in Queens to call attention to rumors about the city’s plans to open a new school inside Martin Van Buren High School.

Department of Education officials said there is not yet any official plan to site a new school inside Van Buren’s building, but that preliminary discussions had taken place with school leaders.

The school’s enrollment, which once dramatically exceeded capacity, has dropped significantly in recent years, and local leaders have lobbied the Department of Education to help it improve and attract students. City Councilman Mark Weprin said he was surprised after meeting with Chancellor Dennis Walcott to discuss the school’s future to learn from school officials that he should expect a town hall hearing about opening a new school inside Van Buren toward the end of the summer, at a time when many families and teachers might be out of town.

“Much to our surprise and our disappointment, we hear through the grapevine that they are going to co-locate a school inside the building,” Weprin said. “What a terrible message to send to a community … that the DOE just does these things without even talking to us.”