Today’s news:

Board of Ed gives OK for Forest Hills school

A three-school campus in Forest Hills that would serve 2,100 students drew a step closer to becoming a reality last Thursday when the Board of Education paved the way for a non-profit organization to begin lease negotiations for the site.

At its monthly meeting, the Board of Ed unanimously approved a resolution to give the Manhattan-based Schoolhouse Foundation the authority to acquire a site on Metropolitan Avenue and begin an environmental cleanup of the 340,000-square foot lot that is currently unoccupied.

“This is a major commitment the board is making today,” said Terri Thomson, the Queens representative to the Board of Education.

Facing a nearly $2.8 billion gap in its school construction budget, the Board of Education’s partnership with the Schoolhouse Foundation allows it to build the schools without tapping into its capital funds.

Under the plan, the non-profit foundation will fund the land acquisition and construction through an initial mortgage with an institutional lender, followed by the issuance of tax-exempt bonds through the New York City Industrial Development Agency, according to the resolution passed at the meeting.

Leelei Demoz, executive director of the Schoolhouse Foundation, said the cost of construction of the Forest Hills campus, which will consist of separate primary, intermediate and high schools, is estimated to be $200 million. He said the campus should be ready for occupancy by the 2004 school year.

Though specific details of the agreement still need to “be tightened,” according to Demoz, the foundation will lease the schools to the city to service the bond debt. The estimated cost of rental for the first year of the lease is $4,498,750, the resolution said.

The Board of Education would pay that amount with money from its operating budget, allowing it to undertake other projects with its capital funds. The city’s school construction budget is to be about $7 billion from July 1999 through June 2004.

Once the debt is paid off, the Schoolhouse Foundation will lease the schools to the city for $1 per year, Demoz said.

“This is a very creative mechanism to build schools outside the board’s capital plan,” said Thomson. “The board has a $7 billion capital budget which barely reaches the tip of the iceberg.”

Demoz said the environmental cleanup of the site will begin shortly. “The main environmental concern is that there is some underground pools that contain some water that is not quite groundwater standard,” he said. “No water is drawn from it, but it’s there and they would like it cleaned up.”

The Schoolhouse Foundation was founded in 1999 with the mission of finding alternative and cost-effective ways to build public schools in New York City. Its president, Kevin McCabe, is the former chief of staff for Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria). The Forest Hills project is the group’s inaugural venture.

The location, which is currently owned by developer Forest City Ratner, was last used as a food distribution center. It is known to most Forest Hills residents as the site of a proposed movie theater that never materialized due to community opposition.

Thomson said Queens is the perfect place to test this new method of school construction. “We have a serious overcrowding problem in Queens County that gives our children the short end of the stick,” she said. “They’re not in buildings they deserve to learn in.”

Thomson said the alliance with the Schoolhouse Foundation is an example of how to ease overcrowding without the use of additional resources.     

“We need to think differently about how to build schools with limited resources,” she said. “We need to continue to think out of the box for solutions.”

Reach Reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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