Kennedy phaseout faces legal challenge

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The United Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit on May 19 to stop the Department of Education from closing John F. Kennedy High School and other schools slated for phaseout. 

The detailed 65-page suit, filed in State Supreme Court, seeks to prevent the phasing out of 22 schools and to stop the DOE from co-locating or expanding 18 charter schools, including the two New Visions charters opening on the Kennedy campus this fall. 

Along with the UFT, JFK Parent Teacher Association and School Leadership Team member Janice Lamarche and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., are among the plaintiffs. 

Last year, the UFT filed a lawsuit that kept the DOE from closing 19 schools. The two parties entered into an agreement that describes how struggling schools should be treated. 

However, Riverdalian Charles Moerdler, of law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, who is working as outside council for the UFT, said the DOE has done the “opposite” of what was agreed upon. Mr. Moerdler, who is also Community Board 8’s Land Use chairman and sits on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board, said officials should have placed Absent Teacher Reserve personnel — teachers whose jobs have been eliminated but, because of union contracts, are still paid — at struggling schools to decrease class size and provide extra help. However, he said, the few schools that did hire ATRs used them as hall monitors, not teachers.

“I am deeply disappointed that the Department of Education has not adhered to the written agreement resulting from last year’s lawsuit. Regulations and laws are supposed to be followed, and no one has the authority to circumvent legal mandates,” Mr. Diaz Jr. said in a statement.

The lawsuit contains an analysis of how shared space will play out on the Kennedy campus, which is slated to house eight schools, two of them new charters, starting in the fall. It alleges that the DOE “completely failed” to provide a schedule for the auditorium and does not have a workable plan for the library, which no longer has a librarian. 

The suit also alleges that the DOE increased the number of incarcerated, homeless, special education and English Language Learner students at struggling schools.

In January, former Kennedy employees told The Press that in the early 2000s, JFK became a “dumping ground” for struggling students, was thrown into chaos when academic departments were restructured and suffered from poor leadership. 

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a statement in response to the legal challenge. 

“It is outrageous that the UFT has … taken steps to try to keep students in failing schools and block families from access to better options in the fall. This shameful lawsuit is about one thing — protecting jobs for adults at the expense of what is best for our children,” it read.

The principal’s union then fired back.

“Over the last nine years, the city has systematically neglected many schools, usually in financially disadvantaged neighborhoods, offering them little supervision and support, then encouraging the Office of Student Enrollment to dump formerly incarcerated students, English Language Learners, special education youngsters and temporary housing children into those schools as if they had given up on them like some preordained underclass.”

Mr. Moerdler, for his part, said struggling schools should be improved instead of closed. 

“Closing a school simply to open another school is just the height of folly,” he said. “If The New York Times prints 20 corrections on page two, do you close The Times? You fix the problem, you don’t close the place.”

In February, the Panel for Educational Policy, comprising members appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and borough presidents, voted in favor of phasing out JFK. This fall, the school will stop enrolling ninth graders and will gradually reduce in size over the next four years. At the same time, two New Visions charters will begin enrolling ninth graders and expand by a grade each year.

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