Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Parent sues City Hall for refusing to release unredacted decision memo on class size

Decision memo p.2
For immediate release: July 17, 2018
For more information contact: Leonie Haimson; leoniehaimson@gmail.com; 917-435-9329.

On Monday, July 16, 2018, Brooke Parker, a NYC public school parent, filed a lawsuit against the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York, challenging the almost complete redaction of a City Hall Decision Memo that contained a discussion of the reasons for the city’s rejection of several recommendations of the Blue Book Working Group, including a proposal to align the school capacity formula with smaller class sizes.  She is represented in court by Laura D. Barbieri, Special Counsel of Advocates for Justice, a pro-bono law firm.
Brooke is also a member of NYC Kids PAC, which had sent a candidate survey to Bill de Blasio when he first ran for Mayor.  In June 2013, his campaign returned the survey, in which he promised to  Reform the blue book formula so it more accurately reflects overcrowding and incorporates the need for smaller classes.”
In February 2014, his newly-appointed Chancellor Carmen Farina appointed a working group to come up with proposals to improve the accuracy of the formula used to devise school capacity and utilization. The working group contained administrators, teachers and parents, and was co-chaired by Lorraine Grillo, the President of the School Construction Authority and Shino Tanikawa,  a parent leader and then-President of the Community Education Council in District 2 in Manhattan.
As explained by a NYC DOE spokesperson, “"Over the last decade, communities across the city have been cut out of decision-making processes that undermined the voices of educators and families. That approach is now gone—and we're replacing it with one that reflects a genuine desire to engage with communities.  With new leadership that will listen, it's a new era for our system. Families and educators need to know that we're going to seek their feedback and engage with them as much as we can."
The Blue Book Working Group made its first round of proposals that were accepted by the DOE in June 2014, including that trailers would no longer be counted in estimating school capacity.  In December 2014, the Working Group proposed thirteen more changes to the formula, including that the DOE should align the school capacity formula to the smaller class sizes in their original, state-approved Contract for Excellence class size reduction plan.  This would require a formula that assume no more than 20 students per classroom in grades K-3, 23 students in grades 4-8 and 25 students in high school, to ensure adequate space to lower class size to those levels. 
On July 28, 2015, without explanation, the City sent an email to reporters, in which the seven recommendations that were accepted were noted, as well as three proposals it would “study.” The email omitted any mention of the three proposals it had rejected outright, including the one that several members of the Working Group said was the most important: to align school capacity with smaller classes.
As Lisa Donlan, a member of the BBWG and the President of the Community Education Council in District 1 said at the time, “Certainly for me and for many of us, the class size issue was the biggest issue that we felt would have the greatest impact on bringing us to painting an accurate picture of reality and making sure that all kids got access to an adequate education — hands down.”
When reporters asked why the City had rejected the proposal on class size, the only answer offered by a Department of Education spokesman was that schools would "continue to work toward this critical goal" of reducing class sizes.
Following up on an earlier Freedom of Information request by Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, Brooke Parker filed a FOIL request in on January 24, 2018 seeking “The City Hall 2015 decision memo about which proposals of the Blue Book working group to accept or reject, with the reasons for this decision included.” 

On February 2, 2018, the Mayor’s office sent in response an eight-page document entitled “Decision memo” that was almost completely blacked out, with no mention of the proposals rejected and no information provided on why certain proposals were accepted and others not.  The rationale offered for the redactions was that the items redacted were “inter-agency discussions” and thus exempt from FOIL, pursuant to Public Officers Law § 87(2)(g).  

Yet this law also states that any “final agency policy or determinations” are not exempt from FOIL, as this memo certainly was.  It also makes clear that any inter-agency materials that contain factual data or instructions to staff that affect the public are not exempt, and it is extremely unlikely that no data or facts were cited in the discussion of these decisions. Ms. Parker appealed the redactions to the City, and on March 15, 2018, Henry T. Berger of the Mayor’s Office responded, “Your appeal is denied because I have determined that the redactions were proper.”  Thus, she had no further option but to file an appeal in court.

As Ms. Parker points out, “The decision made by the Mayor’s office to reject the recommendation of the Blue Book working group to align school capacity with smaller classes was terribly unfortunate, and will make it far more difficult to achieve the smaller classes that NYC children need to receive their constitutional right to a sound basic education, according to the State’s highest court in the CFE case.  But then to suppress any of the reasons for this decision and black out the entire discussion explaining the reasons for it makes the original decision even worse.“

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters, adds: “When he was running for office, the  Mayor promised parents that he would reduce class size and align the school capacity formula with smaller classes.  He also promised to bring more transparency and community involvement to decision-making, especially when it came to our schools.  He has so far failed at all three.  Hopefully, the Court will agree that his administration can no longer hide their damaging decisions in a flurry of redactions, but will have to spell out the reasoning behind them.  New York City parents and other stakeholders deserve no less.“

The verified complaint is posted here.
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