Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sad fate of landmarked PS 31 in the Bronx to be turned into high rise with a charter school instead

PS 31 when it was still standing
Today it was announced there will be a mixed use development at 425 Grand Concourse in the  Mott  Haven section of the Bronx.  A large apartment complex will be built on city owned land where until recently, a landmark public school building PS 31 once sat.    
The city awarded the project to Trinity Financial and MBD Community Housing Corporation, and will be financing it with funds from its ten year capital plan. The city also upzoned the site, to double its development rights and density.  The city will finance the construction through funds in the mayor's 10-year housing plan, which has as its goal to create or preserve 200,000 affordable units. 
Yet instead of a public school going into this building, a charter school will be built instead:
The development will include 241 apartments that will be rented to tenants earning between 60 and 100 percent of the area median income — $46,613 to $63,700 for families of three.
The 24-story tower is also being billed as the city's largest passive-house development, meaning that it will adhere to stringent energy efficiency measures. The administration said it would consume 30 percent of the energy of a traditional housing development.
The site will house a charter school, a medical facility, space for cultural programs and social services and a supermarket.

The community and preservationist advocates had tried for years to the save the original building, a beautiful school built at the turn of the century:

P.S. 31 was built in 1899 in the "Collegiate Gothic" style by the innovative municipal architect C. B. J. Snyder, who also designed a huge number of other schools during his tenure as the city's Superintendent of School Buildings. Long referred to as "The Castle on the Concourse."
Its commanding presence in the Mott Haven neighborhood, the school was granted landmark status in 1986, before its closure in 1997. Since then, it's fallen into extreme disrepair and is consistently threatened with destruction, with little to no effort made on the part of the city to restore the building to its former dignity. The building has long been seen as a battleground site for Bronx residents and preservation advocates across the city.
In June 2013, the city argued that P.S. 31 was a "public hazard" and couldn't withstand any more storms, but two years later, the building remains standing and in virtually the same condition. Engineers hired by nonprofit SoBRO argued that "although structurally unsound, the building is salvageable," to such a degree that even Goldman Sachs has expressed interest in investing in the restoration process. 

See the petition  to save the building that received nearly 1500 signatures from members of the community.

Despite the fact that the city had let the building deteriorate badly, even the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted not to strip the landmark status of the building and urged the city to preserve it.  Yet their vote had no impact on the city's decisionAs the NY Times reported in 2014 .

The Landmarks Preservation Commission had strong words for the owner of an abandoned landmark in the South Bronx — the elegant and imposing “Castle on the Concourse” — which is so dangerously deteriorated that emergency demolition may be the only resort.
“It’s been a disgraceful stewardship,” Elizabeth Ryan, a commission member, said at a public hearing on Dec. 17.

A fellow commissioner, Michael Devonshire, seconded the sentiment. “I find it completely despicable,” he said.

As remarkable as their anger was the identity of the landlord: New York City.... As a landlord, the city is treated differently by the landmarks law than a private owner, who must obtain approval from the commission before altering or demolishing an individual landmark, or a building within a historic district.

By contrast, a city agency receives only a nonbinding advisory report from the commission, which it may embrace, consider or disregard as it chooses....

Roberta Brandes Gratz, an author on urban affairs and a former member of the landmarks commission, took a longer — but no happier — view.
“What a sour note to end the Bloomberg administration landmarks legacy,” she wrote on Facebook

“The city is a terrible steward of its landmarks and frequently lets them deteriorate ’til they can make this excuse, even though alternative engineers show rescue and reuse possible. Watch a developer scoop this up.”

Which is what happened, in what is now a hot real estate area in the South Bronx.  Even though the Borough President Ruben Diaz had attended PS 31, and had  opposed its demolition,  he applauded the new plan:

As a proud graduate of P.S. 31, I was sorry to see my beloved school building fall into such disrepair, and even sorrier to see it demolished. However, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) recognized the need for new life and new development at this historic site, and has moved to bring welcome new affordable housing units, commercial activity and a reinvigorated Garrison Playground to the Lower Concourse neighborhood."
The city did apparently save  some of the elements of the 1899 school building before demolition —including terra cotta gargoyles, heads and the engraved P.S. 31 sign—and will require that the future developer incorporate those salvaged pieces into the new building. More fragments are in the RFP here.

Sadly, these artifacts, including the PS 31 sign, will now apparently decorate a building housing a privately run charter school instead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Education forum May 6 with Chancellor Betty Rosa and Juan Gonzalez

1. On Friday May 6, Dr. Betty Rosa, the new Chancellor of the NY Board of Regents, will be speaking about her vision to transform our public schools. Juan Gonzalez, investigative reporter, will moderate and ask questions.

Dr. Rosa is an experienced and eloquent former NYC principal and Superintendent who has been critical of many aspects of the status quo. In her first press conference after being chosen as Chancellor, Dr. Rosa said she would have opted her own children out of the state exams if they were still in school.

Please come! Juan always asks great questions but the audience will have a chance to ask theirs too. A flyer you can post or distribute at your schools is here. 
Another version of the flyer in English and Spanish is here.
When: Friday May 6 at 6 PM
Where: George Washington Educational Campus, 549 Audubon Ave. (near 192 st.)
What: Educational forum featuring Dr. Betty Rosa and moderator Juan Gonzalez

This forum is co-sponsored by Class Size Matters, CEC 6 and the Youth and Education Committee of CB12M. 

Also save the date! The Class Size Matters Annual "Skinny" award dinner will be held on Thursday June 9; special guests and location TBA soon. This is always one of the most fun events of the year so you should really try to make it!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The city's use of a non-profit to pay irresponsible preK vendors and get around the procurement rules

Sue Edelman of the NY Post reports on how the Mayor’s office asked a city-related nonprofit called the Fund for the City of NY to cover the costs of preK providers who had evaded taxes, engaged in fraud, failed to hire sufficient qualified staff and/or exhibited other unspecified problems.
Now the DoE is asking the NYC Comptroller to retroactively approve these contracts so the city can reimburse the Fund  to the tune of $1.36 million, in an apparent end run around the  procurement rules.
What the story doesn't mention is that the DoE continues to ask the Panel for Educational Policy to approve payments to preK and/or Special Education providers before background checks are complete- and to approve contracts with vendors where investigations have already revealed serious issues in the past.
This behavior is of questionable legality and risks taxpayer funds and kids' lives.
More details about the problems with these preK vendors  is revealed in the Addendum of this month’s RA's.  Patrick Sullivan and I, on behalf of our Citizens Contract Oversight Committee, highlighted these in our comments sent to the PEP before the vote, as well as other unresolved questions, pertaining to the Amazon contract and special education vendors who were found to have spotty records.
In terms of the Amazon contract, we had pointed out that there was no cost-benefit analysis of how much it will cost to provide e-readers to hundreds of thousands students if they are to receive 30-40% of assigned readings digitally, as the DOE plans; no analysis of the risk to student privacy if teachers will now be able to track student behavior online; and no analysis of how Amazon may access to their digital profiles to engage in targeting advertising to students and enlarge the corporation's massive market share, which further enables their monopolistic and abusive practices, protested by publishers and authors.  Finally, there was no mention of the fact that numerous studies have shown that students who access their reading assignments through digital devices comprehend and retain significantly less.
In terms of the special education and preK contracts, there continues to be a troubling lack of care in the DOE’s practice of rushing these contracts through without sufficient information in advance, or even after background checks have shown them to have engaged in activities that would bar them from other city contracts.
Yet not one PEP member brought up any of these issues during this month’s Contract Committee meeting or during the PEP meeting itself.
I have been told that there are backroom discussions where PEP members privately air their concerns to DOE officials, but the public doesn't have the chance to hear the questions asked or the responses.  The private nature of these discussions sidesteps the open transparent process that is supposed to prevail for a governmental board, and deprives the public of their right to know.
Sue Edelman asked me if the contracting process was better or worse under Bloomberg.  I said that I thought it was about the same because a lot of rotten contracts were also approved during those years. 
Yet at least from 2007 onwards, when Patrick Sullivan served on the PEP as the representative of the Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, he consistently challenged the DOE’s decisions and forced officials to respond to questions in a public forum.
In 2009, as part of the effort made by the Legislature to improve accountability when Mayoral control was renewed, the PEP was given the authority to approve DOE contracts, because of all the abuses that had occurred as a result of corrupt and wasteful spending.  Patrick was frequently supported in his challenges by the Queens rep Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Brooklyn rep Kelvin Diamond and the Bronx rep Monica Major.
Yet never did the PEP actually vote down a contract during the Bloomberg years, as it was controlled by the Mayoral supermajority and the Staten Island rep which together served as a reliable rubber stamp.  The Panel did retroactively rescind a contract awarded to the tutoring company Champion Learning Center, after the NYC comptroller's office had rejected it due to an ongoing federal investigation.
Neither has the PEP voted down a contract since de Blasio took office, to my knowledge. Even the outrageously inflated $635 million contract for Custom Computer Specialists was approved 10-1, though the company had previously engaged in a corrupt kickback scheme.  Only Robert Powell, the Bronx rep, voted against it. Luckily, this contract was so outrageous and the media attention so intense that City Hall rejected it after the PEP vote.
Patrick resigned from the PEP in 2013, as neither the new Manhattan BP nor the Mayor would re-appoint him, and Robert Powell recently left the PEP as well.
Even so, we remain intent on publicizing the flaws in these contracts and in the DOE’s procurement process because not a dollar should be wasted when hundreds of thousands of NYC children are still crammed into overcrowded schools with classes of 30 or more, with the city claiming they can’t afford to do anything to address these issues.

If you want to volunteer for our Citizens Contract Oversight Committee, or have a tip to share, please email us at  Thanks!

Friday, April 22, 2016

A dispiriting night at the Panel for Educational Policy; DOE continues to close struggling schools, co-locate charters and plans to destroy two terrific public schools

Meyer Levin video screenshot; see below
Wednesday night's meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy was even more emotional than usual.  I was watching the livestream to see if any of the numerous, highly questionable contracts that Patrick Sullivan and I had highlighted and had been written about in the media aroused any concerns – including the huge Amazon contract as well as the others going to preK and special education providers who had failed their background checks.  Silly me.  They were all approved unanimously, without a single comment or question. This new, supposedly more “independent” PEP has never yet to vote down a contract – even the $625 million contract awarded to the corrupt computer vendor that had engaged in a multi-million dollar kickback scheme a few years ago.
Similarly, all the various charter school co-locations and school closing schemes were approved as well, as well as a change in the fair student funding formula and the spending for nearly one billion dollars of the Smart School Bond Act, with few if any questions asked.  I think there was one recusal for a Success Academy charter co-location – a school that is facing several lawsuits and civil rights complaints for violating children’s rights.  Wow do I miss Patrick on the PEP! 

Before the votes, however, there was something stirring to see from the audience, who as usual got three minutes each to address the Panel members.
First, there were plaintive remarks from teachers at the Renewal FLAG school in the Bronx that the DOE is closing, with a very emotional teacher Aixa Rodriguez explaining how the timing was awful, with the announcement made after the high school admission process had ended.  Aixa had to explain to a pregnant Spanish-speaking teenager that she would have to find a new school nearby.  It is not easy to find high schools with a LYFE program to provide child care once her baby was born.  MORE leader Jia Lee was there, as well as other teachers to provide support, with one pointing out that so many of the struggling Renewal schools were burdened with charter co-locations that they might as well be called Removal schools instead.
Then civil rights attorney Norman Siegel then took his turn at the microphone, accompanied by several now-adult male graduates of orthodox Yeshiva schools from the nonprofit  group Yaffed, attesting to the near entire lack of instruction they had received as students in English, math and other academic subjects which put them at a huge disadvantage in life and asking for the Chancellor’s help.  Though it is the Chancellor’s responsibility along with the State Education Department to ensure these schools are providing an “substantially equivalent” to what’s mandated for public schools, the DOE has apparently done nothing to follow through, and didn’t even answer the letter that Norman Siegel sent to her in December 2014

This was followed by a phalanx of parents, teachers and alumnae protesting the planned invasion of Kings Collegiate charter school into the building of the Meyer Levin School of the Performing Arts in Flatbush, with the charter school supposed to take over the entire third floor where this middle school’s performing arts rooms are located. See the terrific video at the bottom of this post.
One after another, they spoke of what a unique school Meyer Levin is, especially as it’s the only performing arts middle school in this part of the borough, and how well the school had served its talented and enthusiastic students over many years. See the Carol Burris article in the Washington Post; or the article about this in the Daily News.  In contrast, Kings Collegiate, one of the Uncommon charter chain, is a “no excuses” school with rigid disciplinary policies and some of the highest suspension rates in the city.   You can sign a petition to save Meyer Levin School; and here’s a website with more about the issue.
Finally, there were parents, students, teachers and alumnae from one of the oldest and most celebrated progressive schools in NYC – Central Park East 1, founded by Deborah Meier in East Harlem nearly forty years ago.  Unbelievably, the DOE has installed a new principal at the school who doesn’t believe in progressive education, and who appears to be doing everything she can to destroy it, from carrying out a witch hunt against veteran teachers who haven’t fallen in line, even calling young students into her office to try to “investigate” and build a case against them. 

The principal has refused to meet with parents to discuss their concerns, and instead sent them letters, with the strong implication that black and brown children can’t learn in a progressive environment.  At the PEP meeting, amazing alumnae from diverse backgrounds spoke about how this fabled school had literally changed their lives around.  Parents, teachers and students eloquently described how the principal is destroying what makes the school so exceptional.  DNA info has run articles on the school’s plight here and here.  Here is their website.  Please sign their petition which already has been signed by nearly two thirds of the current families at the schools.

What is so dispiriting is here are two, unique and successful schools, trying to do the right thing by their students against all odds, and provide them with an engaging, well-rounded education, and yet the DOE is trying to undermine them in the most unsubtle ways.  In the case of the Meyer Levin Performing Arts School, the administration is proposing to take away their performing arts rooms -- to give them to an oppressive charter school.  In the case of the progressive CPE1, by inserting a top-down, authoritarian principal who doesn’t believe in collaboration or progressive education.   

These schools somehow survived the twelve ruthless years of Bloomberg and Klein’s reign of terror, and yet are being destroyed by de Blasio and Farina – despite the fact that these schools exemplify the supposed values of this supposedly progressive administration.

Below is a fantastic video made by the students at Meyer Levin; please watch and enjoy!  Sorry for the occasional email alerts at the right of the screen– I filmed this off Facebook before it was taken down.

Meyer Levin video from Class Size Matters on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Comments on DOE Questionable Contracts and Fair Student Funding formula

Leonie Haimson and Patrick Sullivan of the Citizens Contracts Oversight Committee provided the following comments to the members of the Panel for Educational Policy about the proposed contracts to be voted on April 20, 2016. If you want to join our Overight committee, please email us at If you would like to send in your own comments, please do so tonight by the public comment deadline at 6:00 pm.

April 19, 2016
Dear Chancellor Farina and members of the Panel for Education Policy:
On behalf of Class Size Matters, the Citizens Contract Oversight Committee, and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, we have the following concerns about the proposed contracts and the Fair Student Funding formula to be voted on tomorrow night, April 20, 2016:
The Amazon contract
DOE proposes to pay $30 Million to Amazon over three years to provide digital textbooks and tradebooks. The ultimate plan, according to the RA, is to provide 29%-42% of all content online by Year 5 at a cost of up to $64.5 million.
·         Yet there is no cost/benefit analysis in the RA discussion of the proposed contract, including the huge cost of having to purchase tablets or laptops for all the students who will access their assigned readings through digital devices.  The contract also implies that some students will use “a school-provided device or a personal device to access their profile and content,” Yet latter which cannot be relied upon given the fact that many families cannot afford to supply a suitable e-reader for their children to use at home.
·         The RA also proposes that students will “request content for independent reading” via Amazon, which implies that the DOE will be steering students’ personal purchases to this provider, which will allow Amazon to further expand their market share.  Yet many authors and publishers have protested the way in which Amazon uses their dominance of the market to engage in  illegal monopolistic practices, which goes unmentioned in the RA.
·         The DOE omits any discussion of the growing research showing that reading comprehension and retention are significantly reduced with the use of digital devices compared to actual books.  Here's just one of several recent studies on this critical issue.

·         Finally there are the privacy concerns, which are insufficiently addressed in the RA:

“Despite this technology’s capacity for track and reporting student progress, students’ personal identifiable information will be safeguarded in this system, as Amazon will use a DOE-provided proxy with encrypted information and limited student information.”

It is unclear what “limited student information” is going to be included, but in any case, many parents are not just worried about potential breaches, but about teachers and administrators tracking students at school and at home, and what will be done with their personal data.

For more on some of the concerns with the Amazon contract, as yet unexplored by DOE, see today’s Wall Street Journal.

Contracts with Special Education providers

The DOE proposes to award contracts to pay seven special education vendors who have engaged in fraud in the past or who have failed to pay Workman’s compensation and thus are barred from public work contracts.  We strongly believe that any company that has engaged in fraud or failed to properly follow the law should be barred from future DOE contracts for at least five (5) years.

We are also concerned that the DOE admits that “background checks have not been completed for all vendors…Should noteworthy information become known to the DOE after the Panel meeting, it will be reported to the Panel.” 

No contract should be approved without a background check, and there is no point in reporting it to Panel members once negative information is found.  

The fact that the DOE would even consider proposing contracts for companies to provide services to special needs students, a highly vulnerable population, without conducting any background checks, only reaffirms our conviction that there is insufficient care and due diligence maintained by DOE officials to minimize risk to children, fraud and waste. 
More evidence of the insufficient care shown by DOE is shown below in the section below headed “Reimbursing the Fund for Public Schools for PreK vendors found “non-responsible”.
An article about these highly questionable special education contracts was published in yesterday’s Daily News here

Whole School Reform
DOE seeks funding for a vendor, Southern Regional Education Board, who has provided these services in the past and whose expertise with NYC schools has been previously questioned.  It is regrettable that the new proposed contract is presented without any accounting for how the vendor has performed in the past.
Pre-K providers
DOE continues the unacceptable practice of proposing to award many pre-K contracts without providing any information in advance on the vendors or their backgrounds and history (see items #3-5 on pages 49- 51 and #24-25 on pages 109-110,)  This again is risky and irresponsible.
Professional development contracts
We are concerned about the proliferation of professional development contracts.  This month there are seven PD contracts, items #7-11, #16 and #19, at a total cost of $14,697,447 or $8,050,447 annually.  Including these, there have been a total 36 PD contracts since October 2015, costing over $27 million annually, or $98 million over the course of these contracts. 

Nearly half of these contracts are proposed to provide training aligned to the Common Core standards, even though the State Education Department is now planning to revamp the standards. 

Retroactive contracts
DOE also continues its unacceptable practice of asking the PEP to approve retroactive contracts after the funds have already been presumably spent.  This month, there are nine proposed retroactive contracts: items #2, 16-20, 26-28.
Reimbursing Fund for Public Schools the City of New York for PreK vendors found “non-responsible”  [Update: wrote the wrong Fund here}
Serious concerns are prompted in the information found in the Addenda (page 132).  Many pre-K providers were approved by the PEP in July 2014, despite the fact that their background checks were not complete.
Three providers were subsequently found to have engaged in fraud or other illegal behavior, including B’Above Worldwide Institute, FootSteps Child Care Inc., and West Harlem Community Organization Inc.
Church Avenue Day Care did not file NYC corporate taxes for 2010-2014.  While this transgression would normally disqualify a vendor (categorize them as "non-responsible"), the DOE decided to pay the firm anyway with private funds raised by the Fund for the Public Schools City of New York.  The documents now make clear the firm hasn't corrected the issue.  But the DOE wants now to reimburse the Fund for Public Schools for its payments to this vendor.
The DOE also proposes to reimburse the Fund for Public Schools the City of NY for it payments to another preK vendor, Footsteps Childcare Inc. despite the fact that earlier audits from the NYS Comptroller had found this vendor had engaged in “systematic abuse of child care grants awarded by the NYS Office of Children and Family Services, including evidence that funds…had been misappropriated to defraud the State.”
A third vendor, B’Above Worldwide Institute, exhibited unspecified “performance and contract compliance issues” during the 2014-2015 school year.  Despite the fact that the vendor was offered the “opportunity to show cause why it should not be found non-responsible,” B’Above failed to do so.  Now the DOE wants to pay back the Fund for Public Schools the City of NY for the “bridge loan” that the Fund had provided the vendor.
Panel members should oppose these reimbursements.  Moreover, the DOE's practices of using a private fundraising entity to fund questionable vendors, presumably because they had been barred from receiving city funds, should immediately cease.
These examples provide more evidence of unacceptably sloppy and risky contracting practices on the part of DOE, and why no contract should be approved by the PEP for vendors whose background checks have not been completed.
Fair student funding
While in FY 2008, schools were provided with 100% on average of their Fair Student funding, this year the average is only at 89% and if the mayor’s proposed budget is adopted, next year this figure will rise to only 91% — reflecting a 9 percent cut to our schools since 2007.  Moreover, the Mayor’s proposed budget does not project any increase in Fair student funding in the out years.
In many cases, the overall use of the Fair student Funding formula has forced class sizes upwards, or forced principals to choose between retaining their experienced teachers or keeping class sizes at acceptable levels.  
In addition, as Class Size Matters discussed in testimony before the City Council last month, the specific formula being proposed is unsupported by logic or research.
·         The smallest amount of funding is allocated to students in grades K-5, where the investment in smaller classes has huge pay-offs in terms of increased student achievement. 
·         More funding on the level of 8 percent is allocated for students in grades 6-8, an additional 3 percent for high school students, and 40-50 percent additional funding for remedial services as a student falls behind, starting in 4th grade. 
·         Yet as many studies indicate, remediation is  far less effective than prevention,  which  ensures that students do not fall behind in the first place, especially in the form of smaller classes in Kindergarten through 3rd grade.
·         The FSF weights are far greater for special needs students if they are assigned to inclusion classes starting in Kindergarten, (with a weight of 2.09) and in grades 1-12 (with a weight of 1.74), though the class sizes in these ICT classes are generally far too large to provide students with the individual attention they need.
·         The failure of DOE’s inclusion program, caused in large part by the excessive class sizes of ICT classes, is something we hear constantly from parents of special needs students. 
·         This is further evidenced by the fact that since the fall of 2012, there have been sharp increases in the numbers of students recommended for special education services, as well as the number of students attending non-public schools at city expense, according to the Mayor’s Management report.
·         Total special education enrollment in grades K12 has increased by 25 percent in four years since the inclusion initiative began in earnest in 2012, at a huge expense to the city.  The increase in the number of students identified as having special needs is yet another indication of the hidden cost of rising class sizes, especially as class size reduction has been shown to significantly reduce the number of students identified as requiring special services.

Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson, Executive Director, Class Size Matters and co-chair, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy

Patrick Sullivan on behalf of the Citizens Contract Oversight Committee