Tuesday, July 30, 2019

With little fanfare and some disappointment, yesterday's second and final meeting of the School Siting Task Force was held

Indecipherable power points at Monday's School Siting Task Force meeting

Yesterday the second, and it turned out, the final meeting of the School Siting Task Force was held. Reports of this disappointing meeting were published in the Daily News and the Wall Street Journal today.

To recap: In their Planning to Learn report, released in March 2018, the City Council made several proposals to speed up the process of school planning and siting, whose generally slow pace has contributed to over 500,000 NYC students being consigned to overcrowded schools.

In some neighborhoods where the schools are overcrowded, twenty years or more have lapsed without a new one being built, because of the apparent inability of the School Construction Authority (SCA) and the DOE to identify locations, even when these schools have been funded in the capital plan.

The SCA has only four real estate brokers citywide on retainer to help them to find suitable sites, and these brokers never "cold call" or reach out to owners to see if they might sell their properties to the city before they are put on the open market.  Cold calling is considered a "must" in the hot real estate market that is NYC.

The Council’s Planning to Learn report suggested that a process be created to "Improve the school site identification process … that would review City real estate transactions to identify opportunities for SCA. Additionally, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) should alert the Department of Education (DOE) and SCA if a property of appropriate size for a school becomes available."

As a result, the City Council passed Local Law No. 168 in Sept. 2018 to create aninteragency task force to review relevant city real estate transactions to identify opportunities for potential school sites,” including “city-owned buildings, city-owned property and vacant land within the city to evaluate potential opportunities for new school construction or leasing for school use.” The law also said that this task force should provide a report to the City Council no later than July 31, 2019 on their findings.

The first meeting of this task force was held privately on Feb. 26, 2019. After I heard about it, I asked the City Council and the DOE if subsequent meetings would be open to the public, since any official body created by law is subject to Open Meetings Law, according to the expert opinion of the NY State Committee on Open Government.  Initially, I got nowhere fast with either the Council or the Mayor’s office.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer also sent a letter, urging the DOE to comply with Open Meetings Law and allow members of the public attend. In my experience, it has been parents and members of the community who often have the best and most useful suggestions when it comes to siting schools.

Then in April 2019, an article in City Limits was published that discussed how the city intended to keep these meetings private, using this issue as an example of an overall lack of transparency on the part of the de Blasio administration. Subsequently, on May 2, Chancellor Carranza and SCA President Lorraine Grillo responded to Comptroller Stringer, saying the public be would be allowed to attend future meetings, though they refused to concede that they were legally obligated to do so:

Although we disagree with your position that the Task Force is subject to the OML, we do not object to opening Task Force meetings to the general public, consistent with our commitment to community input and engagement. Accordingly, future meetings of the Task Force will be open to the public.

Fast forward until last week, when one of the members of the Task Force, Shino Tanikawa of CEC2, sent around a message to our NYC Education list that the second and final meeting of the Task Force would be held on Monday, July 29 at City Hall from 3-5 PM, and that this meeting would be open to the public.

Five months had gone by between Feb. 26 and July 29, without the Task Force meeting once.

During yesterday’s final meeting, Lorraine Grillo and her staff from the SCA projected a bunch of undecipherable spreadsheets, listing thousands of city-owned properties and privately-owned land, the vast majority of which they had ruled out as unsuitable for schools, because they were too small, not in the right areas, or strangely configured. They said they had found only two sites out of more than 7,000 properties owned by the city that might be good sites for schools: one where the former Flushing airport had been located, and another adjacent to John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. In addition, they said, they were continuing to explore and analyze some of the privately-owned properties.

Their presentation only lasted about 15 minutes, and then Liz Hoffman of the Deputy Mayor’s office who was running the meeting opened it up to questions. None of the Task Force members asked any questions, but several were asked by members of the audience, which included mostly parents and a few reporters.

I asked if the public could have a copy of these spreadsheets. Liz Hoffman said no. She did not explain why they were withholding this information, only that the release of the data was not specified in the law that created the task force. (I have now FOILed the spreadsheets -- as any “statistical or factual tabulations or data” created by city agencies must be made publicly available, according to the relevant state law. ]

Leslie Brody, the WSJ reporter, asked two good questions: how many sites for schools the SCA needed to find; and whether the city had any requirement to include schools in large scale developments. The SCA said they were looking for about 45,000 school seats out of a projected need for 57,000. [The most current version of the five-year plan lists only 11,538 seats out of the 57,000 funded that are “completed or in process,” which usually means those that at least have sites.]

The answer to the second question was no, the city had no requirement that schools must be included in large-scale developments.

Shortly afterwards, I pointed out that the 57,000 estimate for need for seats was a projection that was nearly two years old. Lorraine Grillo agreed, but said their projections would be updated next November. That figure also doesn’t include 3K and preK seats, though the Mayor has sharply expanded the number of these programs in schools, causing worse overcrowding in more than 350 elementary schools.

[The five-year capital plan released in Nov. 2018 had no estimates for the need for new seats –the first capital plan since 2011 not to include this figure. We pointed out this and other problems with the five-year plan here. ]

Lisa Goren of Long Island City Coalition asks a question
Lisa Goren from the Long Island City Coalition asked about the large DOE-owned building on Vernon Boulevard that the Mayor had planned to give to Amazon for its headquarters – despite the fact that the community had been advocating for it to be converted into schools for more than a year.

Lorraine Grillo said that the building isn’t empty and is being used by DOE and SCA (for offices etc.) and therefore wasn’t on the list of the available properties; she implied it was up to the Mayor to decide on its ultimate disposition.

[Apparently there is also a municipal parking garage at Court Square that some LIC community members want to be converted into schools.]

Another reporter asked if there was a timeline by when they expected to finish analyzing the privately-owned sites to see if they were appropriate for schools; and the SCA said no, there was no specific timeline.

When will the report be released? July 31, as specified in the law. Will it be made available to the public? No, just to the City Council.

Will there be a second report? No. Will there be an ongoing process of consultation between city agencies to help the SCA find sites in the future? Yes, but nothing formal.

What should people do if they have questions about the report? After much hemming and hawing, Liz Hoffman said people could email her at EHoffman@fdm.nyc.gov

[The SCA is also open to hearing about possible sites; if you have suggestions, you can email them at Sites@nycsca.org or fill in the form here. More on what they’re looking for in terms of optimal specs here. ]

The City Limits article mentioned above quoted the DOE as follows: “A spokesman for the DOE told City Limits, “We are committed to continue partnering with parents and community on this issue, and are exploring how to best solicit input moving forward.”

I have no evidence that anyone from the task force “solicited input” from the public in any way, but instead kept community members and stakeholders in the dark. Yet it is my experience that the best ideas on how to improve our schools, including the chronic problem of overcrowding, often come from those on the ground and most affected by these issues.

It is regrettable that rather than welcome collaboration with parents and advocates, the city continues to restrict it. Several members of the Task Force told me that even they have not seen a copy of the report that is due to be released to the City Council tomorrow, with their names attached.

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