Vol. 11, No. 23 Dec. 2 - Dec. 15, 1998



     
 

New Schools Plan Could Lessen Crowding

By MATTHEW COREY

If an ambitious new plan is adopted, New York City's public schools will embark on a half-decade of repairs and construction, bringing six new schools to the northwest Bronx's Community School District 10 and one new high school to the borough.

The proposal -- a $10.9 billion five-year capital plan for the years 2000-04 released by the central Board of Education on Nov. 18 -- has a number of fiscal hurdles to jump before becoming reality. Nonetheless, officials are counting on the new schools to make a serious dent in the district's perennial overcrowding crisis.

At the mathematical starting line is the present crisis, as described by District 10 spokesman Bruce Irushalmi: a 1998-99 enrollment of 42,000 children in space designed for 36,000, a shortage of 6,000 seats. When all current projects are completed, including PS 54 in Fordham Bedford, the Otis Building lease in Norwood, and MS 254 in Belmont, the old 1994-99 five-year plan will lessen the burden by 3,600 seats.

In the new plan proposed for District 10 are four elementary schools (650 seats each), one middle school (900 students), and one early childhood center, serving 400 children from pre-kindergarten to third grade. The projected cost for new construction in the district is $161 million. The plan also adds 650 seats in leased properties, for a grand total of 4,550.

"It is a generous allocation, a thoughtful allocation," Irushalmi said. "We've gotten a fair share and a significant amount of what we need. It is the closest the district will ever come to capacity."

"There are very few districts that are being attended to the way District 10 has been attended to," said Maria Garcia, special assistant to Sandra Lerner, the Bronx's representative on the central board.

The Bronx at large will receive a new 800-seat high school. Borough teens need this new capacity desperately, according to Garcia.

"That bubble of an elementary school population will move through the grades," Garcia said. "It will further exacerbate our high school problem if we don't do something about it now."

Existing high schools will also be juiced for added capacity through a variety of efficiency measures: adopting year-round schooling (800 seats), new leases (800) and using "seats in underutilized districts" (2,400). In 1997, classrooms in the south Bronx's Districts 7, 8, and 12 were between 14 and 18 percent unused.

Older schools modernized
The plan would fix and modernize older schools throughout District 10. Affected schools include PS 8, 51, Bronx Science, and DeWitt Clinton High in Bedford Park, PS 46 and 246 in Fordham Bedford, PS 56, PS 94, MS 80/PS 280 in Norwood, and Kingsbridge Heights' PS/MS 95.

Parents in District 10 and citywide have agitated for repairs to school exteriors, many of which sprouted scaffolding after the Board of Ed's Division of School Facilities conducted a massive inspection in the spring. Extensive shoring up started this summer for some area schools, but the new plan proposes new exterior projects for 80 (roof, parapets); 94 (main and minischool roofs, exterior masonry); 46 and 56 (minischool roofs); and 51, 95, 246, and Clinton (masonry).
Locally, the largest single new repair is a $4.84 million "interior modernization" at PS 246. Auditoriums are a major priority with stages at 8, 46, 80/280, 95, and Bronx Science getting modern sound systems and lighting. The Board of Ed is also making a concerted push for better burglar and fire alarms and public address systems.

Some opinion leaders believe the Bronx got the short end of the budgetary stick. According to the plan, Queens will get 40,750 new seats in the next five years, while the Bronx will grow by only 14,150.

"On a massive scale, we've been grossly shortchanged," said Charles Williams, president of Community School Board 10, at a November public meeting.

The board unanimously urged the voting parents of the district to call elected officials and complain about the five-year allocation.

Queens larger and still growing
The Queens student population (270,846), however, is larger than the Bronx's (222,481) and is projected to grow far more quickly. In 2007, Queens enrollment will have increased 22 percent from 1997, while the Bronx student census will have shrunk four percent, according to Board of Ed predictions.

Moreover, borough-by-borough comparisons like those made by the Daily News in its Nov. 19 headline, "Queens Gains Most," can be distorting.

"If people are responding to a bottom-line number, then that's not a fair comparison," Garcia said. "It's not apples to apples."

Queens is overcrowded in almost all districts, but this is not the case in the Bronx, where packed District 10 and 11 (northeastern Bronx) coexist with underpopulated south Bronx school districts.

While some feel the plan treats District 10 unfairly, the Board of Ed, in contrast, felt it was necessary to explain its generosity towards the district.

To illustrate this view it's useful to compare two districts in the two boroughs. In Queens' District 29, there is a projected 2002 overload of 4,950 students, and the district will receive five new schools. In District 10, there is a smaller projected overcrowding problem of 4,550 students, but it will get six new schools.

Small leases inefficient
According to the plan's authors, the Board of Ed's tilt towards District 10 lies in the "unique conditions" there, including an inordinate amount of non-classroom space used for teaching and the district's high number of small-sized leases like the newly rented four-classroom Otis Building, which the central Board finds inefficient.

While the Board of Ed wishes to let a thousand schools bloom in its educational flowerbed, the city, state and federal governments will decide how much of the new five-year plan to fund.

"I think it's a great start. But the $11 billion is not in their hands yet," said parent activist Ronn Jordan. He sits on the Education Committee of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and is the father of two students at Norwood's PS 56. "We have our fingers crossed."

As a citizen, Jordan said added taxes or bond debt directed to funding the capital plan "wouldn't bother me at all."

"My kids are in public schools," he said. "This would be financing their education."

For the $10.9 billion it needs to raise for its plan, the school system has divided the funds into low-risk (75 percent), medium-risk (15 percent), and high-risk (10 percent), a category which includes appeals to the state for promised but unspent funds from past years.

State funding key
"The open question is how we ensure there are ultimately enough resources to complete the job," said Bob Hughes, deputy director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a group that argues for school funding patterns that are fairer to the city.

"A higher percentage of the typical school building is paid for by the state in other localities than in the city," Hughes said, citing the city's higher construction costs.

"Because of this, the state has contributed to the problem," Hughes said. "We now need the state to contribute to the solution.

Unless there are administrative changes at the Board of Ed between now and 2000, the School Construction Authority (SCA), distrusted by many parents and elected officials because of delays and mishaps on a number of school projects, will oversee the construction and repairs.

"We have to make sure the SCA is really watchdogged on this one," Jordan said, "so that no one takes [the money] and runs wild with delays and cost overruns of tens of millions of dollars."

Questions of where to put the schools, whether the repairs are sufficient, and other ramifications of the plan will surely find their voice at the upcoming district-level hearings, which will allow the public to weigh in on the Board of Ed's plan.

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