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School receivership law withstands court challenge

New York's controversial receivership law that allows for the takeover of failing public schools withstood a court challenge by the teachers union, with a state Supreme Court judge this week rejecting a number of arguments aimed at deeming the statute unconstitutional.

"Having concluded that the Commissioner's implementation and usage of Education Law ... is not unconstitutional under either Due Process Clause, the Court obviously must conclude that the statute is not unconstitutional on its face," Acting Supreme Court Justice Roger D. McDonough wrote in his ruling.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation and its parent union, the New York State United Teachers, filed the complaint in February, arguing the receivership law denies teachers their collective bargaining rights by allowing the state education commissioner to impose reforms that override contract terms. That’s what happened in Buffalo, where failed attempts to negotiate plans for 20 receivership schools led Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to grant Superintendent Kriner Cash power to make certain contractual changes without union consent.

The lawsuit asked a judge to nullify Elia’s decision, essentially striking one of the core tenets of the law and affecting how it is implemented not only in Buffalo but in 16 other districts with schools in receivership. Should that happen, changes at those schools – such as extending the school day, requiring training and making staff changes – could come to a standstill until the issue works its way through the courts.

But the judge ruled that the law is constitutional.

"You're taking on New York State; You're taking on Albany," said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. "That's very difficult."

The receivership law, which went into effect in July 2015, allows for schools that consistently fail to meet certain academic standards to be placed in the hands of a receiver. The receiver can make changes and execute plans at those schools without the approval of the school board, and that circumvent the union contract. The superintendent acts as the initial receiver and has a limited amount of time to make academic gains at those schools before they can be placed in the hands of an outside entity.

Historically, local school boards have been the driving force in education, setting policies, approving budgets and hiring superintendents. Much of what happens in schools also is governed by local agreements negotiated with labor unions. Critics, however, say that politics often prevent school leaders from making unpopular changes necessary to improve student outcomes. That might include introducing new programs, extending the school day or letting principals assign teachers regardless of seniority.

The law allows the receiver to circumvent school boards and unions to make such changes at schools in receivership.

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