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$200 million Forest Hills school project near

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Facing a nearly $2.8 billion gap in its school construction budget, the Board of Education has teamed up with a non-profit foundation in a plan to build a $200 million three-school campus on Metropolitan Avenue in Forest Hills.

Under the plan, which will be voted on at a Board of Education meeting Aug. 20, the Manhattan-based Schoolhouse Foundation would issue tax-exempt bonds to pay for the land and construction. The foundation would then lease the schools to the city to service the bond debt.

“We are not taking construction profit on this venture,” said Leelei Demoz, executive director of the Schoolhouse Foundation. “Once the debt is paid off, we will lease the schools to the city for a dollar a year.”

The strength of the partnership lies in the Schoolhouse Foundation’s ability to build the schools without tapping into the board’s capital budget by floating bonds. Under the proposed plan, the Board of Education would lease the schools using funds from its operating budget.

“We’re just coming in and accessing money that the Board of Education would otherwise not have access to,” said Demoz. He estimated the cost of the Forest Hills campus would be about $200 million.

The city’s school construction budget was to be about $7 billion from July 1999 through June 2004, but the $2.8 billion overrun has forced the board to come up with alternative ideas such as the alliance with Schoolhouse.     

The foundation signed an option agreement June 27 with developer Forest City Ratner to buy the 8.25-acre Metropolitan Avenue site, said Demoz. If approved by the Board of Education, the foundation will construct separate primary, intermediate and high schools with a total of 2,200 seats.

The location, which was last used as a food distribution center, is known to most Forest Hills residents as the site of a proposed movie theater that never materialized due to community opposition. Community Board 6 District Manager Kathleen Reilly said Forest Hills residents have “come out in favor of schools” on the site.

Once the Board of Ed signs off on the project, it will negotiate specific lease terms with the foundation. When that is done, pre-construction can begin. Demoz estimated that ground-breaking could occur as soon as July 2002 and the project could be completed by 2004.

“The concept is very intriguing,” said Reilly. “It might be the beginning of a whole new trend in school building.”

The Board of Education could not be reached for comment.

The Schoolhouse Foundation was founded in 1999 with the mission of finding alternative ways to build public schools in New York City. Its executives have ties to Hollywood. Actors John Cusack and George Clooney attended a benefit for the organization last year, according to the Daily News. The Forest Hills school project is its inaugural venture.

“We hope this catches on,” said Demoz. “Maybe it’s another non-profit that sees we’ve been able to lead the way and tries to do the same.”

Reach Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:19 pm, October 10, 2011
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