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Lawsuit to halt charter school co-locations on hold pending city review

The plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at rolling back school space plans approved under the Bloomberg administration say they are putting their litigation on hold until Chancellor Carmen Fariña reviews the plans.

A group of City Council members filed the lawsuit in December with the goal of undoing dozens of school co-locations that the Panel for Educational Policy approved last year. Many of the co-locations would allow privately managed charter schools to use public space, a practice that Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he would curb.

Public Advocate Letitia James, who filed the suit along with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and others, told Chalkbeat that she had pushed back an upcoming court date in the suit after meeting with Fariña last week.

“I think I’m going to wait until the chancellor reviews each and every one,” James said. “But she and I will continue to have discussions.”

The postponement came after a handful of politically connected schools were already dropped from the suit. It also came as charter school advocates rallied Thursday at City Hall against the lawsuit, which they said could prevent thousands of students from having a place to attend school this fall.

Jeremiah Kittredge, executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, which organized the rally, said the news was a positive development but not enough to put charter school operators and families at ease. “We’re glad that Ms. James changed course,” he said. “However, unless other parties to the suit also adjourn, charter school children remain at risk.”

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit against the plans, said the suit’s main allegations, including that the city did not calculate available space in school buildings properly, remain true. But he said he wanted to let Fariña reassess school space plans approved last year before proceeding, as she has said publicly that she would do.

A spokesman for the Department of Education reiterated that promise today. “We’ve committed to reviewing the proposals that were approved this fall to ensure that they are in best interests of all students and schools,” Devon Puglia said. “It’s simply the responsible approach to take as we listen to communities across the city.”

Fariña has criticized the data the department used to calculate available space on several occasions, including at her first Panel for Educational Policy meeting last week. She has also said that parents and other stakeholders were too often excluded from decision-making in the past.

Schwartz suggested that parent groups in the districts and schools that would be affected by the plans could get a role in determining whether they are carried out. “There was an agreement on a process, a real genuine process,” he said.

The schools that were dropped from the suit had formulated their space plans with public support, Schwartz said.

Dream Charter School, which is housed in Mark-Viverito’s district, was removed because there was “zero opposition” to the plans, Schwartz said. He said the same went for a charter school being started by Children’s Aid Society, whose CEO Richard Buery was a member of de Blasio’s transition team, though there was plenty of criticism for the plan at a September public hearing, according to city documents.

A third charter school, Icahn Charter School, was removed after it withdrew its co-location proposal after securing private space.

Schwartz said the Children’s Aid Society got another pass because it did not retain the Arnold & Porter law firm to fight the suit the way that Success Academy, which has eight schools affected, and some other charter operators did. Success Academy’s chief legal officer used to work at that firm, which has an active pro bono practice defending charter schools.

Schwartz said Success Academy — whose CEO, Eva Moskowitz, was a target for de Blasio’s charter school criticisms on the campaign trail — was a main reason that litigation had been necessary in the first place.

“If Success wasn’t involved there would still be opposition, but it wouldn’t be as nasty,” Schwartz said. “There would probably be more of an effort by the charter schools to work things out.”

As for working it out, Schwartz said there was an obvious reason for Fariña to come to a compromise over the lawsuit, beyond her beliefs about how the school system should be run.

“I think the chancellor wants to resolve it and not be at war with her fellow officeholders,” he said.

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.