Koppell, Parents Clash Over Jonas Bronck
By PATRICK BUTLER and JORDAN MOSS
Jonas Bronck Academy (JBA), a middle school of choice in District 10 founded in 1997, has been looking for a new home to replace its temporary leased space at Manhattan College in Riverdale. But, even though parents and other supporters of the school identified a building for the school and corresponded with the Board of Education regarding it, Community School Board 10 has other plans. At a heated meeting earlier this month with parents at Concourse House in Fordham Bedford, Board president Oliver Koppell was adamant that the former Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) traffic court building on Sedgwick Avenue would be used for MS 368, another school that is in temporary quarters in Riverdale.
Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation (FBHC), a not-for-profit sponsor of JBA, identified the DMV building earlier this year. It is owned by Fordham Hill, a condominium development.
According to John Reilly, president of FBHC and parent of a former Jonas Bronck student, when his agency first proposed the site, "the district said they were not interested, the central board said they were not interested." But after receiving a more positive letter from Patricia Zedalis, then the president of the Board of Education's Division of School Facilities, FBHC and the school's supporters believed that the site would be dedicated to JBA.
But then the school board, looking to end the controversy over MS 368, took an interest in the site. "It solved somebody else's problems," Reilly said.
MS 368 is linked to the controversial creation of the Riverdale-Kingsbridge Academy at MS 141 in Riverdale. The proposal to include high school grades at MS 141 ignited a firestorm in the district, with many parents and two school board members charging that the plan was designed to keep minority children from outside of Riverdale out of the school by restricting the number of middle school seats available. Later, the board proposed to build MS 368, behind Kennedy High School for Marble Hill residents. But more controversy ensued over that site, a former gas station. There have been numerous environmental reviews at the site, the latest of which found methane gas that experts say can be easily remediated. But construction will take at least two years, if not more, considering unexpected shortfalls in the city's school construction budget.
Though JBA may have another two years on its lease with Manhattan College, its ability to stay there is not indefinite - the school had only intended to lease the site temporarily - and supporters of the school, which now has only 150 students, want a better facility so that it can grow and expand to include high school grades.
"JBA had 65 percent of its students score at or above average on the state Regents Language Arts Test," said Pat Logan, a Fordham Bedford staffer. "We think this is a reason to double the size of the school."
However, Koppell insisted the DMV site would be used for MS 368 until its permanent site is complete. "We have committed to creating a new school," said Koppell. "I don't have an alternative [for JBA] at this point."
Ronn Jordan, a parent of children in District 10, complained to Koppell that it wasn't fair for the board to dictate the use of a site it wouldn't have even known about otherwise. "We did the leg work. We found the site," he said.
Lois Harr, a parent, told Koppell that the parents who worked to secure the site should be given priority. "We should be at the top of the list," she said.
"These parents worked really hard to find this site," said Judy-Sheridan Gonzalez, another local parent. "It doesn't seem fair."
"I think you only care about the kids in your schools and not anyone else," Koppell told the parents at one point, echoing similar complaints leveled at Koppell and his allies on the school board all during the Riverdale-Kingsbridge Academy controversy.
In an interview after the event, Harr took strong exception to Koppell's comments.
"How could he say that to those of us in that room?" she said. "We were the ones who suggested the sites for [PS] 340 and for [PS] 254."
"What is he talking about that we don't care about anyone else when our record is fighting for a budget amendment for the whole district?" Harr added. (Harr and other parents at the meeting are members of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, which has for more schools and smaller class size over the last several years.)
Participants in the meeting urged Koppell to sign a lease with Fordham Hill for the site soon, ensuring that it will not be bought by a private developer.
But Koppell, who is also a candidate for City Council in the 11th District, said he would not support the site if Fordham Hill placed any kind of exclusive holds on it, and he told the parents not to press their case with the Fordham Hill board. "I will oppose renting it with any conditions imposed on it," he said. "If you push Fordham Hill, you will not get this site."
Harr said the parents agreed not to interfere. "It would be a bigger sin if we lost the building," she said. "I think the fair thing is for it to go to Jonas Bronck, but in the hierarchy of right and wrong, it should be a school."
Harr added in the interview that she thought Koppell would be better served if he tried to meet the parents halfway, by agreeing to make sure that Jonas Bronck secured the Sedgwick Building after MS 368 moved into its new facility behind Kennedy. But Koppell did not commit to that at the meeting.
Steve Kaplan, a JBA parent, said that although the meeting didn't produce concrete results, he and other parents would keep at it until a viable solution was found. "I think we as a group will continue to look for new sites," he said. "Hopefully this lease will get worked out."
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