New Lawsuit Seeks Information On School Reopening Discussions In District 16

New Lawsuit Seeks Information On School Reopening Discussions In District 16
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza tour P.S. 59 in Brooklyn with labor leaders. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

Bed-Stuy’s Community Education Council of (CEC) 16 is taking legal action against the Department of Education (DOE) related to a decision that allows four schools in the neighborhood to have classes outdoors when blended learning begins next week for public school children.

The lawsuit stems from district schools not releasing any recordings of their School Leadership Team (SLT) meetings over the summer, as per Governor Cuomo’s Executive Orders which allowed SLT meetings to be held via video conferences. Those video conferences were required to be recorded and transcribed, and to be open to the public as per the Open Meetings Law.

However, CEC16 President NeQuan McLean says that several of District 16’s schools are refusing to release the video recordings of their meetings from over the summer – a time where many schools were discussing reopening for the 2020-2021 school year.

“The Department of Education expects us to send our children to school and feel confident that they’ll be safe,” McLean wrote in a press release alerting the media about this lawsuit. “But they won’t even release the recording of the meetings held to prepare for the re-opening.”

CEC16 used an attorney to file a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request against the DOE. Even though FOIL requests usually can be done without a lawyer, having one can impress the seriousness and urgency of the request.

“The DOE has a poor record of responding to FOIL requests,” says Laura Barbieri, the attorney working on this matter. “Having an attorney enforces the request.”

On August 28th, the DOE’s Office of Legal Services responded that a search for the records will be done, with a follow-up by Monday, September 28th. By then, public schools will be back in session.

“These people should have it at the tip of their hands,” McLean told Bklyner. “It’s a recording. All they should be able to do is forward the recording. It’s that simple.”

That led the CEC16  to agree during an emergency meeting on Thursday, September 10th to move ahead with a lawsuit to force DOE to release the FOIL data in a timely manner. According to Barbieri, this can prevent any delays in getting the information.

“We want it sooner,” Barbieri explains. “But that’s in anticipation of the fact that they’re going to delay. We want to enforce the determination.”

Anita Douglas, another CEC16 member, agrees legal action is necessary.  “I think it’s necessary to hold schools accountable. I don’t have anything negative to say, it’s been really hectic for everyone. I think the teachers and staff in District 16 have done an amazing job. But there has to be accountability.”

One of the main reasons why McLean and other members of the CEC want access to these recorded SLT meetings is because four D16 schools were approved for outdoor learning – Brooklyn Brownstone, Brighter Choice Community School, P.S. 40, and P.S. 21 – despite the fact that Bed-Stuy has seen an increase in shootings over the summer, including a man killed a block away from Brooklyn Brownstone. It is unclear if any other schools in the district applied to use outdoor space and whether any schools were denied their applications, but we will update if the DOE responds.

This past Friday, McLean sent an email to Deputy Chancellor Karin Goldmark in which he pointed out to Goldmark that when she attended a CEC16 meeting on August 24th, “we were very clear in sharing our concerns around the safety and imminent danger of outdoor learning as an option in our district.”

The email went on to mention the 20 shootings during the last three months across three precincts the school district overlaps with – 77, 79, and 81.

“To that end,” the letter continues. “I know you will understand that we are at a total loss as to why the DOE would make a decision to approve these outdoor learning spaces which are in close proximity to where some of these shootings have occurred.  Engaging the community and parents of the approved schools should be paramount to the DOE making such a decision that could end up tragically impacting the lives of families and the community at large.”

McLean ended the email by demanding a follow-up with Goldmark to discuss a “well-thought out plan” to ensure the safety of everyone – students and staff – in those four schools as approved by the DOE. He also demanded to know what criteria did those four schools meet to qualify for outdoor learning, and if there was any collaboration with the three police precincts to allow those schools to be approved for outdoor learning.

During the emergency meeting on Thursday, September 10th, Superintendent Yolanda Martin explained that the principals applied for outdoor learning via links to the applications.

“Most of the requests, with the exception of two schools,” she said, “consist of using the yard for gym. So, outside of that, only two schools request potential instruction.”

McLean wondered if the parents were engaged in this decision, and went on to explain the need to get those SLT meeting recordings to make sure D16 parents were engaged in whatever decisions their schools made. Such meetings are required to be accessible to the public. He also wondered who at the DOE’s Central Office made such a decision to have outdoor learning with an increasing crime rate in Bed-Stuy.

“These are our children,” McLean said. “And we want to make sure that they’re safe.”

As for the permission slips, which parents would sign, agreeing for their children to participate in outdoor learning, McLean sees faults in that logic.

“A kid gets shot,” he said. “We’re now going to throw that permission slip in the parent’s face and say, ‘oh you signed the permission slip’? So, I’m not sure why these proposals were granted by the DOE without having a conversation with the Community Education Council. Were the SLTs of these schools engaged?”

Douglas told Bklyner that while outdoor learning may not be too safe for schoolchildren, it is no different from the environment they are in before and after school.  Besides, some of these students are coming from families who can’t afford to have them do remote learning since their parents have to work.

“Violence is random,” she says. “You can’t control the external environment. I have faith in the teachers and staff to accommodate for the kids. I believe the administrators are trying to help to keep them safe.”

She also points out that outdoor learning will let the children spread out and prevent a possible COVID19 outbreak, as per CDC guidelines.

At the end of the emergency meeting, the CEC members voted unanimously to proceed with the lawsuit. An affidavit will be filed, which will go with the injunction, on Monday, September 21st.

“We want to know what has been discussed,” McLean says. “It’s required by law to be given to us. If you can’t give me basic documents, how am I supposed to trust what you’re saying? We need to do what we need to do to get it.”

The DOE’s Press Office has not yet given a statement when Bklyner asked for their response to the FOIL request and the lawsuit.