Public school parents, guardians and community leaders filed suit against the city Department of Education today for violating state education law by making zoning changes that affect neighborhood schools without approval from Community Education Councils, effectively denying parents and children access to neighborhood schools without a voice in the process.

Community Education Councils (CECs) are the local bodies created by the State Legislature to ensure that parents and the public retain some oversight over education under the mayoral control system. State education law requires the Department of Education (DOE) to get the approval of the community through its local CEC when it wants to make certain changes, including zoning changes that affect neighborhood schools. But the DOE unilaterally announced plans to close PS 194 and PS 241 in Harlem and PS 150 in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of Brooklyn, leaving those zones empty of neighborhood schools and exacerbating already well-documented overcrowding conditions.

By closing down the sole neighborhood school and not providing an alternative neighborhood school, the DOE is in effect eliminating district zoning lines. To do that legally, it must obtain the approval of the local education council.

The plaintiffs filed the suit at State Supreme Court in Manhattan. They include Gregory Mendez and Serita Mendez, parents of six children who have attended PS 150; Anna Ramirez, the parent of two children enrolled at PS 194; Kathryn Corbett, grandmother of a student at PS 241; Olaiya Deen, the parent of a student at PS 75 in District 3 and a member of the District 3 CEC; Rose Laney, a grandmother and guardian of two students at PS 150, president of the PS 150 parent-teacher association and head of the District President Council; Tatanisha Rice, aunt and guardian of a student at PS 194, former president of the parents’ association and a current member of the school leadership team; David Grinage, a parent of a student at PS 150 and president of the District 23 CEC in Brooklyn; and Jennifer Freeman, parent of a student at Middle School 54 in District 3 and a member of the CEC in District 3.

Also joining as a plaintiff is Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the 200,000-member labor union representing public school educators in New York City.

The New York Civil Liberties Union is co-counsel on the case and represents plaintiffs Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Jennifer Freeman, a parent and the secretary of District 3’s CEC, which includes PS 241.

“This is about the rule of law and community participation,” Freeman said. “The law requires local involvement in zoning changes through the approval of Community Education Councils. By closing these schools, the DOE is not only breaking the law, it is subverting the democratic process.”

The transparency, accountability and oversight that the lawsuit is seeking have been praised by representatives of the local NAACP.

“The city needs to listen to hear what the community has to say before closing or rezoning community schools,” said Dr. Annie Martin, president of the New York City branch of the NAACP. “In order for a school to be truly successful, it has to be responsive to the needs of the community, and in these cases the parents are not being given a chance to voice their concerns.”

“The DOE should not pit parents against parents and students against students,” UFT President Weingarten said. “The DOE should be spearheading rather than subverting the improvement of neighborhood schools. That is a core obligation of every public school system. Instead, as we are seeing more and more overcrowding, the DOE is exacerbating it by eliminating rather than expanding neighborhood public school options.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs state that the DOE’s actions show its “disregard for statutorily guaranteed rights of community voice and participation… The (DOE) is and continues to act by fiat in derogation of the legislatively created balance between local participation and central control by utilizing its powers over school creation to alter attendance zones unilaterally without the consent or involvement of the people the community school serves.

“This type of disenfranchisement of communities is taking place in schools such as PS 150, PS 194 and PS 241, which are being erased from the zoning map instead of having efforts made – by working with parents, teachers and administrators – to improve them.”

Grinage, a parent of a student at PS 150, criticized the DOE for acting unilaterally without seeking input from the CECs, parents and educators.

“The rezoning is really a problem because they are not considering the needs of the community,” Grinage said. “They are effectively rezoning and forcing our children to go outside of their district without consideration from the CEC.”

“Parents think what the city is doing is against the law,” said plaintiff Kathryn Corbett, adding, “The community was not informed about this until it was a done deal. What kind of choice is that?”

Plaintiff Serita Mendez said, “I don’t like the way this happened. I felt disrespected because we as parents are involved and we should have been notified of these changes before they were put in place. That never happened.”

“I have two daughters attending the school and both of them are asthmatic,” Mendez added. “They’re right across the street from the school. Now this is being taken away. They don’t understand why they have to go somewhere else. The DOE is doing what it wants and telling us after the fact. That’s not choice.”

The DOE recently announced plans to replace PS 194 and PS 241 with two charter schools and close PS 150 which will require students to seek admission to schools outside of their attendance zones or a at charter school with no assurance of admission. The three schools have struggled academically in recent years, but many parents feel that the schools should be given additional resources and have an opportunity to turn themselves around before being closed.

“The law requires community approval before a neighborhood school zone can be eliminated,” Weingarten said. “The DOE is showing total disregard for the public’s concerns and the law. Parents should have a voice when it comes to their children’s education, and by eliminating community schools without public hearings the DOE is taking away that voice.”

The suit also claims that the DOE does not intend to create any other district or public school seats for the displaced students within their community zone, leaving them to apply for seats in neighboring zones or in charter schools newly sited within the existing school buildings. As a result, students within an attendance zone would find themselves competing with students from the entire district for seats in what was their local school.

In 2007, at the request of the leadership in the State Assembly, Public Advocate Gotbaum appointed the Commission on School Governance to study New York City’s education governance structure and make recommendations for the State Legislature. In September 2008, the commission released its final report.

“In the past several years DOE has consistently and systematically ignored the interests of CECs, parents, educators, and students, as my Commission on School Governance reported in 2008,” Gotbaum said. “In this particular situation, the DOE not only refused public participation and community input, but it also clearly violated state law. Rather than allow the students of PS 194 and PS 241 in Harlem, and PS 150 in Brooklyn, to be displaced from their community zones, it is time to take a stand. I join with the other plaintiffs in this case in filing suit against the city and renewing my call for a change in DOE policy.”

NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman urged state legislators to pay attention to the lawsuit as they reconsider mayoral control.

“Zoning laws are the one small area of oversight that parents were allowed to keep under mayoral control,” Lieberman said. “The state legislature must assess mayoral control in light of the mayor’s track record. This is yet another case of the DOE and Mayor Bloomberg showing disdain for the law and for the public’s voice.”

Plaintiffs ask in the lawsuit that the court rule that the DOE’s policy in these cases is a violation of state education law, order the DOE to stop it and reserve such zone alterations to Community Education Councils.

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