Elected Officials Call on DOE to “Fix” Girls Prep Situation

We just returned from 1 Centre Street, where elected officials and education advocates rallied against the Education Department’s decision to proceed with its expansion of the Girls Prep Charter School. Today’s event was organized by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who denounced the DOE’s “tactic to bulldoze parent input.”

State Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh, State Senator Daniel Squadron, and City Councilmember Rosie Mendez were on hand for the event. Councilmember Margaret Chin and U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez sent emissaries. Late last week, the neighborhood’s elected representatives all released strongly worded statements, highly critical of Chancellor Joel Klein’s use of his “emergency powers” in the Girls Prep situation.

Klein made use of a little known clause in the state’s new education law to, as Stringer put it, “sidestep” a ruling by State Education Commissioner David Steiner “annulling” the Girls Prep plan. Steiner ruled the DOE failed to properly consider the impact of the expansion on P.S. 94, one of two schools sharing a building with Girls Prep on East Houston Street.

Stringer said the DOE has routinely overlooked special needs students, like those at P.S. 94 (a school for autistic children). While emphasizing that none of the elected officials have anything against the charter school students enrolled in Girls Prep, he said “these kids (P.S. 94 students) have rights too.” He called on Klein to explain the rationale behind his decision and to meet immediately with “relevant stakeholders” to answer questions.

Squadron urged the DOE to “heed Commissioner Steiner’s decision.” He added, “the emergency exemption is not meant to be a loophole to drive a Mack truck through. There is a process in place… to determine whether an emergency declaration is truly justified and how the problems will be remedied. The department has clearly not met these standards.”

Last week, a DOE spokesman pointed out Steiner’s ruling specifically allowed the chancellor to use his emergency powers if he concluded it was “immediately necessary for the preservation of student health, safety or general welfare.”  In a brief interview after the news conference, Assemblyman Kavanagh said it’s clear to him the law was meant to give the chancellor some leeway during “true emergencies,” (such as a natural disaster), not to compensate for a “botched planning process.”

This afternoon the Education Department released a statement, but did not acknowledge the elected officials’ concerns about its use of the chancellor’s “emergency powers.” It only  addressed the contention that P.S. 94’s students would be displaced due to Girls Prep’s expansion:

“Not a single autistic child in this program would be moved from their current location under our proposal.  The emergency declaration would solely be to provide space for 84 middle school girls who start school in one week and, without our immediate action, would not have a place to learn.”

The Girls Prep controversy marks the first time the chancellor has invoked his “emergency powers” since Albany renewed mayoral control of New York City’s schools last year. That legislation was the result of a deal brokered by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and co-sponsored in the Senate by Daniel Squadron.

Last fall, during a “town hall meeting,” Squadron faced skeptical parent activists, who were worried the mayor and chancellor would continue (as they put it) to ignore community input about local schools. Squadron told them the new law included provisions that would assure DOE accountability to parents. As a co-sponsor of the legislation, Squadron said, he would make sure the Education Department respected the letter as well as the spirit of the law. None of the elected officials at today’s rally/press conference indicated whether the events of the past several days led them to question their support of mayoral control. But Councilmember Chin, in her statement, made it clear how she feels the new era of collaboration is going so far:

“(The) bill was intended to include a number of compromises and restraints, which supposedly justified its passage. And yet, just over a year later, the Administration and Chancellor Klein have shown us just how they feel about Mayoral control. Instead of parent consultation, they govern by fiat.”

In our post-event conversation, Kavanagh acknowledged the Girls Prep controversy is a “test case” of the new legislation, and said he would be watching to see how the DOE responds to this situation, as well as other issues. If the law needs to be revised, Kavanagh said, it is something he’d be open to considering.

Following the news conference, many of the participants were headed to a meeting with DOE officials. There appears to be some hope a compromise can be worked out, potentially involving an alternate location for the Girls Prep students. We’ll let you know what we hear.