Unions Head to Court to Stop School Closures

Unions Head to Court to Stop School Closures
In an evolving story out of New York, teacher unions have sued the school district to prevent them from following through with proposed school closures.

In an attempt to stop school closures across New York City, teacher unions are taking their case to the courtroom. Union members have called the closure of 24 schools a “sham,” used by the mayor and his team to oust teachers by stripping them of their contractual rights. City officials have said the closures are necessary for raising the education bar throughout the city and have denounced union members as obstacles in providing the best quality of education to New York City students.

The Plan to Close Schools

The school closure plan was put into place last month when the Panel for Educational Policy voted to close 24 under-performing schools over the summer. According to a report at NY1, new schools would immediately open to replace the closed schools this fall, with schools meeting in the same buildings under new names and leadership. Teachers and principals who have been working in those locations up to this point will have to reapply for their jobs in the new schools next year. City officials predict only about half of current staff will be rehired, with the rest made up of new applicants.

Because the buildings will technically house new schools, contractual obligations with the current staff of the old schools will not apply. This allows the city to move forward with plans to get rid of ineffective teachers, replacing them with stronger applicants. The union has no intention of allowing this plan to go through unhindered, stating that the process is unfair to the teachers who are already in the city school system.

This archival video shows some of the speeches given by Panel for Education Policy members.

Heading to Court

NBC New York reports that earlier this month, the United Federation of Teachers and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators filed court papers with the New York Supreme Court to protest the school closures and ask the court to stop the process. The ultimate goal of the decision is to force the city into arbitration on the closure issue and give the unions a say in the process. The Queens Chronicle reports that the unions have argued that the plans for the 24 schools do not involve true closure, which prohibits the city from violating contractual agreements when staffing the re-opened schools for this fall.

“This is no secret to anyone in this city that what the mayor and chancellor are proposing to close these schools is a sham,” Ernest Logan, president of the principals’ union, told NY1. “These are sham closings, these are not closings. This was an attempt to go around collective bargaining. The chancellor is attempting to move out educators without going through the process.”

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, agrees with Logan. Mulgrew told NY1, “He has now crossed a line. It’s all about politics; it is no longer about education, the schools, the students.”

According to the New York Times, the unions are specifically asking the court for a temporary restraining order. This would allow time for the arbitration process to begin. The unions have filed grievances with the Panel for Education Policy after the decision was made, and now they want their concerns to be heard before the proposal becomes a reality. Arbitration could postpone the entire process until June, which would put pressure on city officials who want to get the new schools open in time for the next academic year. In addition, if the arbitrator rules in favor of the unions, the entire plan by the mayor and city officials to overhaul city schools would end up in a nearly permanent holding pattern.

This archival video offers another take on comments from members of the Panel for Education Policy.

The City Fires Back

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott have both blasted the lawsuit, suggesting that the teacher unions are the ones standing in the way of true progress in the city’s public school system. In an emailed statement reported at the New York Times, Chancellor Walcott wrote:

"The U.F.T. and C.S.A. have shown that they would rather leave our students’ futures to the courts than do the difficult work of turning around failing schools and giving students the education they deserve. We have already begun preparations to open these 24 new schools next fall, training their leadership teams and holding productive meetings with the U.F.T. to begin the process of staffing the new schools. Sadly, today’s lawsuit could have damaging consequences for that process, jeopardizing the creation of exciting new schools with new programs, teachers and leadership structures."

The city’s Department of Education has also stated that it is allowed to dismiss all teachers currently working at the schools that are closing and hire back new ones for the new schools. The department adds that it is not obligated under any contractual obligations, under Article 18D of its contract with the teachers’ union. However, the union said that the question of what constitutes a “new” school is the reason they are taking their complaint to court.

“These are not real closures,” Adam Ross, a lawyer for the U.F.T. told NBC New York. “The only thing that they’re changing in these schools is the identification number. It’s the same students in the same buildings, doing the same things that they would do otherwise.”

This archival video reports on another meeting of the Panel for Education Policy.

City officials do not agree, and Mayor Bloomberg has gone as far as to suggest that unions are more interested in protecting teachers’ jobs than providing the highest quality of education possible to New York City students.

“Suing to stop closing schools which are leaving our children without a future says that your agenda is not to help children, it is some other agenda,” Bloomberg was reported saying at NBC New York.

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