Today’s news:

Bursting Richmond Hill schools gain relief

The School Construction Authority broke ground on a new elementary school building in Richmond Hill Friday that will provide more than 700 new seats in one of the city’s most overcrowded school districts when it opens in September 2004.

“It’s going to help all the overcrowding in Richmond Hill and Woodhaven,” District 27 Superintendent Matt Bromme said following a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday morning at PS 254. “It’s going to be a tremendous help because we need more seats in this district.”

More than 34,000 children attend District 27 schools, making it the fourth most heavily populated district in the city, Bromme said. The district covers Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Howard Beach, Far Rockaway, Woodhaven, Belle Harbor, Broad Channel and Averne.

Over the next few years, school officials project there will be more children in District 27 than in any other in the city.

“That’s a major concern,” said Bromme, who was joined by outgoing Queens representative to the Board of Education Terri Thomson, City Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village), Community Board 9 Youth Coordinator Lisa Gomes and SCA officials at the ceremony.

“Development here and in the Rockaways is coming quicker than the schools,” he said.

Dressed in hard hats and lugging shovels, the school and government officials led a symbolic dig at the 1 1/2-acre PS 254 site on 101st Street between Park Lane South and 85th Road.

The ceremony came just a day after the SCA broke ground on another District 27 school in Far Rockaway that will also seat more than 700 students.

The schools, which will cater to children from prekindergarten to fifth grade, are scheduled to be ready by the beginning of the 2004 school year.

The total cost of PS 254 is $62.8 million, which includes design and construction of the 97,000-square-foot school building, wiring its classrooms to the Internet and the purchase of furniture such as blackboards and student desks.

Work at the school, which is being built on the site of an old five-building clothing manufacturer’s complex, began in late February. Contaminants such as lead and asbestos were cleaned from the site and demolition is now underway. Three of the five buildings have already been taken down,

“It’s all clean,” said Frank Ziegler, project officer for the School Construction Authority. “Otherwise we couldn’t start the demolition.”

Environmental concerns at another District 27 school built on a factory site — PS 65 in Ozone Park — led worried parents to claim the school was making their children sick. But extensive testing has found no cause for health concerns and Bromme said parent complaints at PS 65, which began in May following news reports of contaminated groundwater, have not changed the way the district operates.

“There are two-phase environmental studies anytime a building goes up,” he said. “There are procedures. If a company puts up a school, the company is at risk.”

PS 254 is part of a capital project that will add school seats in Queens, but Thomson said the construction has not been able to keep pace with the influx of residents to the borough.

“Clearly districts like District 27 with its incredible overcrowding have desperate need,” she said. “It is tragic that in this greatest city in the world we can’t provide a seat for every child.”

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

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