Friday, August 6, 2010

City Sidesteps State Ruling to Expand Charter School by Sharon Otterman -

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Joel I. Klein, the chancellor, invoked emergency powers. Chad Batka for The New York Times
It took almost six months for David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner, to decide that New York City had broken the law when it decided to take space from a program for autistic children on the Lower East Side and give it to an expanding charter school.

Joel I. Klein, the chancellor, invoked emergency powers.

It took less than two days for Joel I. Klein, the city schools chancellor, to say he would disregard the decision, at least temporarily.

On Wednesday, the chancellor announced he would use his little-known emergency powers, based in a clause in the State Education Law, to follow through with the city’s original plans.

The emergency clause, designated section 2590-h (2-a) (f), provides that the chancellor may unilaterally transform how a school is used, avoiding the normal process of public hearings and notification, when doing so is “immediately necessary for the preservation of student health, safety or general welfare.”

It was Mr. Klein’s first use of his emergency powers, which were embedded in the law passed last summer extending mayoral control of the city’s schools. His exact reasoning as to why they were warranted in this case — whether for health, safety or welfare — is due to be posted on the city’s Web site in the coming days, a city spokesman said.

Citing continuing litigation over the issue, a spokesman for Mr. Steiner declined to comment on Mr. Klein’s move, which was reported Thursday by The Daily News.

But Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, who represents the Lower East Side and has not been a booster of charter schools, used the terms “blatant abuse” and “breathtaking end run” to describe his reaction.

“Unfortunately, it’s the kind of arrogance that too many parents have come to expect from Chancellor Klein when it comes to having a voice in their children’s education,” he said in a statement.

In February, the city approved the plans of the Girls Preparatory Charter School, an all-girls elementary school founded by a group of wealthy investors, located in Public School 188 on the Lower East Side, to add middle-school grades.

To make room, the city decided to reduce the grades served in a program for autistic children, saying it would send students who would have gone there to other locations.

Parents of students affected by the move brought the case to the state commissioner, complaining that the city had given them no information about where the autistic children would go. In his ruling on Monday, Mr. Steiner agreed, saying that the city had to hold new public hearings before moving students, a process that would effectively put off any change for at least a year.

But there was a line at the very end of the nine-page ruling, which city officials pointed to on Thursday as evidence that the commissioner wanted to give them a loophole. Nothing in the decision, Mr. Steiner wrote, prevented the chancellor “from invoking the emergency provisions.”

The city now has six months before it has to comply with the ruling, during which time it will let Girls Prep expand and begin sending the autistic students elsewhere.

Jessica Santos, whose son, Jared, is entering fifth grade in the autistic program, said she was not surprised that the city had found a way to expand the charter school, but was upset by the way it was justified.

“For him to say it was over health and welfare of the kids — it’s ironic, because you are moving around the kids who are most vulnerable,” she said.

Echoing Mr. Silver, the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer, called Mr. Klein’s use of his emergency powers a “brazen display of indifference” and ended his statement: “Oh, come on.”

Girls Prep, which had already started renovating its new space, hailed the chancellor’s decision, in part because classes resume soon.

“We are happy that we can continue to prepare for the opening of our school in less than two weeks with as little disruption as possible for our girls,” said Cristina Garcia-Coleman, the interim chief executive of Public Prep, the school’s parent organization.