Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Testimony of Leonie Haimson before the NYC Council Education Committee On school overcrowding and the deficiencies of the capital plan

Newsclips that quote my testimony (below):  

 NewYork City Schools Plagued by Overcrowding (WSJ, behind paywall);  City: Nearly Half of NYC Students in Overcrowded Schools (Schoolbook).

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  My name is Leonie Haimson; I head Class Size Matters a citywide advocacy group devoted to providing information on the benefits of smaller classes to parents and others nationwide.

Last June, Class Size Matters released a report, Space Crunch, which analyzed the school overcrowding crisis in New York City, and pointed out the need to improve the City's proposed five year capital plan for school construction.[1] We found that given enrollment projections and existing overcrowding, it is likely that the real need in our schools is likely over 100,000 new seats, though the current capital plan would create less than half that number.

By averaging the enrollment projections of the two DOE consultants, Statistical Forecasting and Grier Partnership, and then adding the additional growth from housing starts, as DOE does, one can estimate that  is that there will be approximately 84,000 additional students in grades K-8 by 2021; and an additional 32,000 high school students.[2]

There are only 38,654 seats in the proposed five year capital plan – with 4,000 of those seats still unsited as to district and with undetermined grade levels. Unless the plan is significantly expanded, our students are likely to be sitting in even more overcrowded schools in the years to come.

School overcrowding has significantly worsened in the last six years, especially at the elementary grade level. Last year, elementary school buildings had an average 97.5 percent utilization rate, according to the DOE's figures in the Blue Book, with the median rate at a shocking 102 percent. High schools were not far behind at an average of 95.2 percent.  About half of all students were enrolled in overcrowded schools last year, according to DOE’s figures, with 60% of elementary school students, totaling more than 490,000 students in all.

At the same time, most experts believe that the official utilization figures reported by the DOE are faulty and actually underestimate the actual level of overcrowding in our schools, The Chancellor has appointed a task force to improve the formula, which will hopefully take account of the real needs of children for smaller classes, and a well-rounded education, with dedicated rooms for art, music and science, as well as mandated services.

The result of all this overcrowding is that class sizes are pushed above reasonable levels, students have lost their cluster rooms, are assigned to lunch as early as 10 a.m., and/or have no access to the gym. Many special needs students are forced to receive their services in hallways or closets rather than in dedicated spaces.
In eleven NYC school districts, elementary schools average above 100 percent capacity; in 20 out of the 32 districts, above 90 percent. In addition, high schools in Queens and Staten Island average above 100 percent. More than 30,000 additional seats are needed in just these districts to bring schools down to 100 percent.
Even more seats are needed if overcrowding is to be eliminated at the neighborhood level, as evidenced by thousands of students sitting in trailers, and thousands prospective kindergarteners on wait lists for their zoned schools.

Recent and past policies have worsened overcrowding.  During the Bloomberg administration, fewer schools built than in earlier administrations, as shown in our Space Crunch report. In addition, the DOE insisted on inserting hundreds of small schools and charters into buildings that already housed existing schools, eating up classrooms by replicating administrative and specialty rooms – a very inefficient use of space when the infrastructure is already inadequate to meet most students’ needs. In the effort to squeeze in more schools, DOE also redefined the size of a full size classroom down to only 500 square feet in their Instructional footprint, at the same times as increasing class size.  As more and more children were pushed into smaller and smaller rooms, the result has been a violation of the building code in many cases, which requires 20 square feet per student.

This administration has also undertaken policies that have worsened overcrowding.  This year, in the push to expand pre-Kindergarten, at least 11,800 preK seats were added in 254 schools that were already overcrowded, according to DOE figures. [3]  The DOE’s plan to create community schools with wrap-around services also requires space, for offices and other programmatic needs. And none of this takes into account the need to reduce class size, which remains at a 15 year high in the early grades.  

In addition, the Mayor’s new ambitious plan to build an additional 160,000 additional market-rate units, on top of the 200,000 affordable units over the next ten years will create the need for even more school seats.[4]

Just as this capital plan is totally inadequate to relieve overcrowding, it is also unlikely to achieve the DOE's widely-publicized promise to eliminate trailers or temporary classroom units (TCUs). While the NY Times has reported that 7,158 students are enrolled in classes in these trailers, [5]  the actual number is likely 50 percent higher – as the DOE has omitted from its count thousands of high school, middle school and elementary school students, as well as severely disabled students, who attend classes in these substandard structures.

Moreover, although DOE officials have promised that the capital plan will accomplish the goal of eliminating trailers, many of which are in disrepair and long past their expected lifetime, and have allocated nearly $500 million to remove them and recondition the school yards on which they sit, there is not a single dollar in the capital plan dedicated specifically to replacing their seats. In the November capital plan, 81 TCUs are identified for removal with a minimum enrollment of 1126 students; but 236 TCU’s will remain with at least 6,265 students. The actual enrollment figure in the TCUs remaining is probably much higher, as 32 of these TCUs are at high schools and the DOE does not report how many students use these trailers.[6]

Our report concluded with a number of policy recommendations, suggesting how the DOE can improve the school utilization formula, enhance the planning process, and institute a more aggressive capital plan, using eminent domain and funded in part by "impact fees”.

Just recently the DOE signed a five year contract with an IT vendor, Computer Consultant Specialists, to wire NYC schools at a cost of $127 million a year, and renewable for four more, potentially at a cost of more than $1 billion. Originally the cost of this contract was nearly twice that high, at $225 million per year, for up to nine years, at a potential cost of $2 billion.  After I blogged about this questionable contract, and reporters started asking questions about it, the DOE managed to cut about $100 million out of the annual amount.  [7]

There has been considerable controversy over this contract, especially as the company was implicated in a kickback scheme that robbed DOE of millions of dollars only a few years ago.  But I wanted to make a separate point: for only $125 million in city funds per year, according to the Independent Budget Office, just a bit more than the DOE cut out of this contract, the number of seats in the capital plan could be doubled and we could eliminate school overcrowding and begin to meet the real needs of our students.  I strongly urge the Council to do so.

I also strongly support the resolution against raising the charter cap.  If the Governor’s proposal was adopted, with the cap raised to 100 and all geographical limits eliminated, NYC could be subjected to 250 new charters, all obligated to receive space at the city’s expense.  I hope the DOE or some other body gave you a cost estimate of how much the new charter amendments are projected to cost the city.  I assume that they will surpass $40 million per year very quickly, with the state obligated to reimburse 60% of the cost thereafter. 

But if 250 charters were imposed on the city, the cost to providing them with space could be immense.  Our rough estimate is that this could cost an additional $833 million per year.  Of that amount, the cost to the city would be roughly $357 million per year, with the state covering the remaining portion at $476 million per year.[8]  The annual city payments for charter rent alone could nearly triple the number of seats in the capital plan if used to build new schools.

If the cap is lifted, and 250 more charters were targeted to NYC, the likely outcome would be that the only schools to be leased or built in the future would be charter schools, and as our public schools became increasingly overcrowded, parents would be forced to send their children to these schools whether they wanted to or not.

Conclusion: None of the goals of parents, advocates or the de Blasio administration can be achieved without a better and more ambitious capital plan – so that our public schools have the space for prekindergarten, smaller classes, a well-rounded education, and wrap-around services.   Only with significantly improved planning, policies, and funding can our public school students be provided with the learning opportunities they deserve.  And all this would be nearly impossible to achieve if the state lifts the cap on charter schools.

[1] http://www.classsizematters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/SPACE-CRUNCH-Report-Final-OL.pdf

[2] This is because the consultants do not take into account building starts, so the DOE says they “overlay” the estimates from residential development using the City planning formula, above the estimates of the consultants.

[3] Pre-Kindergarten data from DOE Directory for the 2014-2014 Admissions (September 2014)
http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/AAEE65E0-8326-4E33-BACA-A462A2ECC65E/0/201415PreKDirectoryUPDATED09032014.pdf; Utilization Data from Blue Book report, 2013-2014,  http://www.nycsca.org/Community/CapitalPlanManagementReportsData/Pages/EnrollmentCapacityUtilization.aspx

[4] Michael M. Grynbaum, “In 2nd Year, Mayor de Blasio Will Focus on Making Housing Denser and More Affordable, NY Times, Feb. 2, 2015.

[5] Al Baker, “Push to Rid City of Classrooms That Are Anything but Temporary,” NY Times, March 31, 201.4

[6] http://www.nycsca.org/Community/CapitalPlanManagementReportsData/CapPlan/11052014_15_19_CapitalPlan.pdf

[7] See http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2015/02/news-update-on-immense-doe-contract.html; also Yoav Gonen, “DOE hiring tech firm linked to kickback scheme,” NY Post, Feb. 24, 2015 and Juan Gonzalez, “New contract from city's Department of Education to questionable technology firm does not compute,” NY Daily News, Feb. 24, 2015.

[8] This was based on the following estimated figures: 250 new schools with up to 1200 students each (400 students at each level: elementary, middle and high school) to be paid a minimum of $2,775.40 per student for rental costs, which is the amount required for next year, though the per student amount likely to rise in the future. This equals $832.6 million – with the city covering the first $40 million and then 40% of the total cost thereafter, as specified in the new state law. 

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