Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Yesterday's capital plan hearings: school overcrowding bad and getting worse

I co-authored a Gotham Gazette article published yesterday on the need for more school seats and reforms to the school planning process yesterday with Javier Valdez of Make the Road NY.  See also the story on NY1 on the hearings. 

Yesterday, in a crowded Committee hearing room at City Hall, the City Council Education Committee held hearings on the five-year capital plan.

Among those testifying were Eduardo Hernandez, President of Community Education Council in District 8 in the Bronx, Shino Tanikawa, President of Community Education Council 2 in downtown Manhattan, Midtown and Upper East side and co-chair of the DOE Blue Book Working group; Fe Florimon, President of CEC 6 in Upper Manhattan and chair of Community Board 12 Youth and Education Committee; Maria Roca of Friends of Sunset Park in Brooklyn,; Luke Henry, a member of CEC 1 on the Lower East Side and co-chair of the Youth and Education committee of Community Board 3; Mary Winfield, East Harlem parent activist; MC Sweeney, member of Community Education Council in D28 in Queens; and Bertha Asitimbay, a parent leader at PS 19 in Corona and a member of Make the Road NY. 

All spoke eloquently about impact of overcrowding in their neighborhood public schools and a broken school planning process that needs critical reforms or else the problem will worsen with the thousands of new housing units resulting from the Mayor's rezoning proposals. Below is my testimony and that of Marie Winfield.

Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose led off by saying that the DOE needs estimate of 83,000 seats was based on updated enrollment projects and a new Blue Book formula.  Despite the fact that there are more than 550,000 students crammed into overcrowded schools according to the DOE's own figures, she continued the implausible line started during the Bloomberg administration that there was merely "pocket overcrowding."

Chair Dromm asked why for the second year in a row the capital plan was months late. This plan released in January was supposed to be released in November; last May's plan was supposed to be released in February.   Rose responded that the latest delay was caused by the need to incorporate the Blue Book task force recommendations (which were actually proposed in December 2014, and new Blue Book report was released in October.)

 Dromm asked if its true that they never use eminent domain to site a school unless the property had recently been on the market; SCA President Lorraine Grillo confirmed that this was true.  She also said that she would welcome a committee or taskforce to look in depth at the problems with school siting.  Dromm asked why the city rejected the Blue Book Working group recommendations to align the school capacity formula with smaller classes; Grillo said that this was still a "work in progress."

CM Margaret Chin asked why they were now building "gymnatoriums" -- combined gyms and auditoriums rather than separate spaces for each.  Grillo said it was matter of space and only happened in Elementary schools where the auditorium is not needed often.  Chin also asked what reforms are needed to see that schools are built along with housing, especially since the Mayor's new housing plan is accelerating the creation of new residential units through rezoning.  She added, whether they would support "impact fees" on developers  with funds available for infrastructure including schools. Rose said there were areas with new housing with underutilized capacity (really?) as for impact fees, that was a state matter.  Would the SCA help us, asked Chin?  Grillo said we won't comment on this.

CM Rosenthal asked what changes in the procurement process have been made since the inflated $1.1 billion contract to Computer Specialists that was later rejected by the city and rebid at a savings of over $600 million.  Rose deferred to Ray Orlando of the DOE budget office.  Rosenthal said she had spoken to Orlando and hadn't gotten any answers.

CM Brad Lander thanked the DOE for the extra schools they've built in his district and the new seats D15 is receiving (they added 1648 seats, but are only funding 50% of their own estimate of need), and then asked about air-conditioners and bathrooms. Rose said air conditioning is not eligible for capital funding, which must come from the "school community" (meaning PTA funds?).  Rose said that there will be a public forum on the spending of the Smart Schools Bond act on March 31.

CM Menchaca asked whether they were budgeting enough for the higher prices of real estate; and need team to focus on creative methods to acquire sites, such as land swaps. Grillo said they'd never rejected a site because it was too expensive in an area of real need. (really?).

CM Levine praised dual-language programs; asked if they are more expensive?  Dromm reminded him that this was a capital hearing, and to hold that question for the expense hearing next week.  He said he was "excited" about the new Blue Book, but asked how a school without a library or gym could be identified as under-utilized, even though these spaces had turned into classrooms because of overcrowding.  Grillo said she could sit down with him to explain this.

CM Dromm asked whether the target class sizes in the Blue Book formula in grades 4-12 are larger than the average class sizes in these grades.  Rose said that was true.  Why did they reject the recommendation to align the formula to smaller classes? Grillo: the BB Working Group is "still in progress" and nothing is off the table.

CM Reynoso spoke passionately about the lack of gyms in so many schools, including PS 18, a school with a small cafeteria that is combined with a gym and a lobby, with columns in the middle.  The principal's office is in a closet. Rose says we would like to solve the problem of lack of gyms throughout the city.

CM Treygar  pointed out the thousands of unmet seats in his district; charter co-locations which made the situation worse; and temporary boilers three years after Sandy wrecked the original ones.

Dromm asked how projects are identified for the $490 million  allocated under the category of Class Size Reduction.  Grillo said there was a committee that meets regularly to identify these projects. (Then why after two years have only three projects been identified  -- when there are 350,000 kids crammed into classes of 30 or more?)

He followed up by asking how many dollars were going to be spent for these three projects now finally identified.  Grillo said they didn't know because they hadn't started designing the projects yet.  (Why after two years have only three projects been identified and none in process in this category -- when there are 350,000 kids crammed into classes of 30 or more?)

Rose added that $72 million is being spent on new partitioning due to placing of School-based health centers for the Community Schools initiative.

There is more at the video link  to the hearings- though the video only starts working at 58 minute in;  I speak at 2.23 in, and my written testimony is below as is Marie Winfield's.  Please check it out for the eloquent testimony of our parent leaders.

Testimony of Marie Winfield, E. Harlem activist:

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