By Nico Simino
Last week, in what came as a surprise given the national mood towards unions, an arbitrator ruled that the city’s plans to reform 24 struggling schools by firing up to half of their staffs violated the teachers union’s collective bargaining agreements.
The arbitrator’s decision guarantees that the city cannot claim more than $40 million in federal funds that the overhaul process, known as “turnaround,” was trying to secure.
Under the new ruling by arbitrator Scott Buchheit, all of the staff members who were let go are now free to take their jobs back. Additionally, teachers who have found new positions elsewhere are free to go to continue with those new jobs.
When the city first announced plans to close the 24 schools, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators (CSA) argued that the closures were “sham closures”, and just a way to illegally get rid of unwanted teachers which would have been a breach in their contracts.
“This decision is focused on the narrow issue of whether or not the mayor’s ‘new’ schools are really new,” the UFT/CSA said in a joint statement. “The larger issue, however, is that the centerpiece of the DOE’s school improvement strategy — closing struggling schools — does not work.”
The two sides made their cases this month in what seemed like a speedup of the arbitration process. Mayor Bloomberg himself even testified, which is a rare occurrence in city-union disputes.
Bloomberg and Chancellor Dennis Walcott have both announced plans to fight the ruling.
“Today’s decision is an injustice to our children that — if allowed to stand — will hurt thousands of students and compromise their futures,” they both said in a statement. “We will appeal the decision because we will not give up on the students at these 24 schools.”
Lisa North, a teacher at PS 3 the Bedford Village School, said that “the losers throughout all of this are the students.”
“All of these open and closures to the schools are traumatic to the kids. This blatantly shows that they [the Bloomberg Administration] don’t care about the students. They were just trying to get back at the teachers for failing to reach and agreement about teacher evaluations.”
Under “turnaround” rules, city schools are eligible to have up to half of their teachers replaced by the DOE.
Early this year, the mayor announced that the DOE would be closing down 33 schools that were underperforming in the mayor’s “State of the City” address in January. During his speech he called for a school “turnaround” plan, which would let the city bypass stalled negotiations with the UFT over a new evaluation system, a condition which could of earned the city a nearly $60 million federal grant from the Obama Administration’s “Race to the top” education funding program.
If state officials agreed to this “turnaround” for the schools, the city could qualify without reaching a deal with the union.
Eventually, that number was reduced to 24, with some believing cronyism having some part in the reduction.
The city cannot appeal to the arbitrator, but instead must go to the New York State Supreme Court. But the court sets a high standard for overturning the results of arbitration proceedings.