May 6, 2009
Dear Manhattan Public School Parent:
As you all know, our City, and especially the borough of Manhattan, is facing a severe public school overcrowding crisis, with overcrowded classrooms affecting educational quality and parents being told that there may no longer be room for their child at their zoned public school or pre-K of choice.
Last Monday evening, the Panel for Educational Policy voted on the 2010-2014 School Capital Plan, which spells out the Department of Education’s plans for new school construction and repair over the next five years. As some of you may already be aware, my appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy, Patrick Sullivan, voted against approving the proposed Five-Year Capital Plan. Although the plan was passed by the Panel and will therefore now be voted on by the City Council, I thought it important to share with you the reasons that Patrick and I felt this was not the right plan to recommend to the Council.
We all understand the seriousness of the fiscal crisis facing our city. Getting through these tough times will require shared sacrifice, and our school system will have to shoulder its fair share of the costs. However, even with this understood, the proposed capital plan is unacceptably inadequate to meet our obligations to our children’s futures. Building schools is an investment in our future that we can’t afford not to make.
In 2008, I issued two reports, Crowded Out, and Still Crowded Out, which documented how, during the building boom, residential construction in many Manhattan neighborhoods far outpaced school capacity growth. This planning failure set the stage for the crisis we are in today. In early October, I joined with most of your elected representatives, as well as parents, educators, and advocates across the city, to launch the Campaign for A Better Capital Plan, an effort to persuade the Department of Education to provide the capital investment our public school children need. Our campaign appealed to the Mayor and Chancellor for three fundamental reforms, the ABC’s of A Better Capital Plan.
While our campaign raised critical awareness of school overcrowding issues, and accomplished some important reforms to the planning process, ultimately the plan brought to the Panel for Educational Policy for approval failed to fully encompass these important reforms:
A. Address existing overcrowding and reduce class size
When released in 2004, the current Five-Year Capital Plan promised to: 1) end the reliance on Transportable Classroom Units (TCUs) and mini-schools over twenty years old; 2) implement class-size reduction in 100% of Kindergarten – Grade 3 classes (to a target of twenty seats); and 3) alleviate high school overcrowding and split sessions.
None of these goals have been achieved in Manhattan. The new plan also does not align with class size reduction targets submitted to the State Education Department under the Contracts for Excellence regulations.
The need for new capacity is acute and obvious in many parts of Manhattan. No new seats are proposed for District 6 in Northern Manhattan, and the 600 in the pipeline from the previous plan are well short of the 940 needed to replace TCUs, the 866 needed to bring K-3 class size to 20, and the 540 needed to reduce class sizes to DOE targets. A district that needs thousands of seats will get none.
Waitlists for Kindergarten seats have spread to many Manhattan elementary schools in District 2 and 3 with hundreds of children still without a school. Upper East Side elementary schools are collectively 1,070 students over capacity with no new schools scheduled for construction. This disturbing reality is compounded by DOE’s own demographic projections which show an 18.5% increase in the number of children for District 2 from 2005 to 2015.
These are just a few specific examples – similar problems exist in Greenwich Village and Chelsea, the Upper West Side, Lower Manhattan, East Midtown and the Flatiron, and parts of Harlem, to name just a few areas.
The proposed capital plan proposes no new high schools anywhere in Manhattan, and many growing neighborhoods throughout the borough will apparently go without any new schools of any kind. Only one of the borough’s six school districts will see new school construction, and even that will occur at a level that is inadequate to meet existing overcrowding conditions, to say nothing of planning for future growth.
The 3,296 seats of new capacity proposed in the Capital Plan for Manhattan represent a nearly 40% reduction from the amount proposed in the previous capital plan. This falls far short of what is necessary to address the chronic overcrowding found across Manhattan. The DOE should propose an amount of school construction necessary to eliminate existing overcrowding, reduce class sizes to the numbers agreed to in Contracts for Excellence, and plan for ongoing growth.
B. Be ready for growth and plan at the neighborhood level
One of the central elements of my reform proposals is that we must start looking at school planning from the perspective of urban planners and development analysts. DOE and SCA should work with their colleagues at City Planning and HPD, as well as other planning experts and communities, to establish a clear, transparent procedure for projecting future growth from new development. The Capital Plan should include a projection of the number of new housing units expected next year, and disclose the estimated impact on local schools, at the neighborhood level, not just at the level of School Districts, because New Yorkers have a reasonable expectation that there will be a school in their neighborhood for their young children to attend.
On this, there is some good news. For the first time, DOE acknowledged our request to project demand at the neighborhood level rather than simply at the district level, as had been their practice in the past. This is an important reform that should yield far better planning in the future.
However, despite repeated requests from Patrick and other members of the PEP, the DOE has not provided a detailed needs analysis at any geographic level. While the new plan proposes amounts of seats for some specific District 2 neighborhoods, there is no demonstration of how the various drivers of demand – new housing, alleviation of overcrowding, class size reduction, recovery of cluster spaces or removal of TCUs – combine into a number of seats we need to provide. And the DOE could not quantify the growth of charter schools in DOE facilities.
The DOE should openly and transparently estimate demand, then spell out the amount of new construction required to meet its basic educational goals. Capital funding can then be allocated rationally and the City can prioritize appropriately.
C. Correct the faulty capacity estimates
The Capital Plan’s assumptions about the current state of school overcrowding are based on the City’s current capacity statistics as reported in the DOE’s “Blue Book”. But according to principals, teachers, parents – and even the State’s highest court, in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision – these official estimates overstate the true capacity of neighborhood schools.
Art and music rooms, science laboratories, special education services, and libraries are all central to the well-rounded education our children deserve. As Patrick pointed out on Monday, the DOE Office of Portfolio Development instructs administrators to use an outdated method of allocating cluster spaces which allows fewer art and science rooms for each school than what is correct under the current formula. As a result, schools rated at 100% of capacity are forced to close art and music rooms while those rooms closed years ago remain pressed into service as classroom space.
And, again, the Capital Plan is based on capacity numbers which assume higher class sizes than the City’s official target numbers at higher grades. To provide an appropriate frame of reference, the City should also measure school capacity based on the City’s official class size reduction targets. These were the promises that were made pursuant to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit and we must, at the very least, show how far we are from keeping them, and what progress is being made towards meeting the targets.
In the long run, as the Mayor has said, failing to invest in infrastructure like schools only makes tough times tougher. We can’t repeat the mistakes of the 1970s, when the City stopped investing in its future, families fled New York and took their tax base with them. In fact, new construction could be one of the best ways to encourage private sector growth and stimulate our economy.
In the “Crowded Out” reports, and in the work I have done with my Overcrowding Task Force, and as part of Campaign for A Better Capital Plan, I have made the case for reforms to the capital planning process. The Capital Plan should include a straightforward accounting of what it would take to reduce overcrowding and reduce class size. Then, we as a City need to make tough choices on how much we spend towards meeting that goal within the context of the City’s overall budget. We must have that debate as a City, and we must not shortchange the discussion by underestimating our needs from the start.
Patrick and I felt our public school children deserve better than the current capital plan. We hope you will continue working with us to keep fighting for the new school seats Manhattan children need to learn and grow.
I have no illusions about how difficult these challenges will be, but failing to rise to meet them is not an option.
Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact Verena Arnabal, my education policy analyst, at email@example.com, or 212-669-4513.
Scott M. Stringer
Manhattan Borough President