Monday, August 12, 2019

Letter to City Council and Speaker Regarding School Siting Task Force

For more on the School Siting Task Force, including its second and final meeting see our blog here , as well recent articles in the Daily News and Wall Street Journal.  More on the controversy as to whether its meetings should have been open to the public to begin with see our blog herean article in City Limits , an advisory letter providing guidance from the NY State Committee on Open Government, and a letter from the City Comptroller Scott Stringer.  

We will update this post when we receive a response from the Speaker and/or the Council.

August 6, 2019

Dear Speaker Johnson and members of the City Council:
We are very disappointed in the process and outcome of the School Siting Task Force, created by Local Law No. 168 in Sept. 2018.  The law mandated the creation of  aninteragency task force” to facilitate the acquisition of publicly and privately-owned sites for schools.  Over 500,000 students are crammed into overcrowded schools,  and in some communities, it has taken over 20 years for the DOE and the School Construction Authority to find suitable sites.  The law also mandated that this task force should provide a report to the City Council no later than July 31, 2019 on their findings.

One of us, Shino Tanikawa, was appointed to the Task Force by the DOE, and the first meeting was held privately on Feb. 26, 2019. Yet according to the expert opinion of the NY State Committee on Open Government, any task force or advisory body created by law to have a specific governmental role is subject to Open Meetings Law.  City Comptroller Scott Stringer also sent a letter to the Chancellor and Lorraine Grillo, President of the SCA, urging them to comply with the law and allow members of the public to attend. In our experience, such a critical issue as facilitating school siting and planning to alleviate overcrowding deserves transparency; and it is our experience that it is parents and members of the community who often have the best and most useful suggestions when it comes to these issues.

On May 2, Chancellor Carranza and SCA President Lorraine Grillo responded to Comptroller Stringer’s letter, saying the public 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.

Yet we heard nothing more about the Task Force until Shino received a message on July 22 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 that final meeting, Lorraine Grillo and her staff from the SCA projected some 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. 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 First Deputy Mayor’s office, who was running the meeting, opened it up to questions. She was asked if the public could receive a copy of these spreadsheets and she said no. She was asked if the public would receive a copy of the report, and she said no that it would be sent to the City Council on July 31, as specified in the law.

According to Shino and Kaitlyn O’Hagan, the City Council representative to the Task Force, neither one of them had even seen a copy of the task force report or was asked for any input before a draft was provided to the Council on July 31.  Shino requested that the draft report be shared with her and was told the final report would  be shared only after the City Council reviewed it.  It was not until City Council staff stepped in that the report was sent to the entire Task Force. In any case, the report is only one and a half pages long. 
Whether or not the deliberations of this Task Force and this report comply with the intent and/or language of Local Law No. 168, it is hugely regrettable that rather than welcome collaboration with parents and advocates, the city continues to restrict it.
We urge you to re-start the entire process of this Task Force, ensure that it holds regular meetings open  to the public, includes representatives from more stakeholder groups, releases all the relevant data,  and solicits input from parents and community members. 
If the Mayor’s office objects, we urge you to amend the legislation to require these provisions.  We would be happy to work with you to finalize the language of an amended law.  Tackling the problem of school overcrowding is too important an issue to let this Task Force end with a one-and-a-half-page report from the SCA.
Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson
Executive Director
Class Size Matters

Shino Tanikawa
Education Council Consortium*
(*Affiliation for ID only)

Naila Rosario

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