Today’s news:

Lack of Funding Puts New Stillwell Avenue School In Jeopardy

The land has been acquired. Demolition of buildings on the site has already been commenced. However, New York State’s refusal to help fund the city Department of Education’s capital plan may put the kibosh on a planned District 20 elementary/intermediate school slated to be constructed on the site of the former Magen David Yeshiva, at Avenue P and Stillwell Avenue. According to DOE spokesperson Alicia Maxey, the school, dubbed P.S./I.S. 237, is on a list of 23 projects citywide – including eight in Brooklyn -- that have been identified by DOE as being jeopardized by the lack of state funding. The total cost of the new school, including the purchase of the land, is projected by DOE as $68 million. When the DOE’s 2005-2009 $13 billion capital plan was developed, the city committed to funding half of it, assuming that the state would pick up the other half. Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who heads up the finance and administration division of DOE, said that the city educational system was entitled to $9.1 billion in 2004 dollars from New York State, based on the judge’s decision in the lawsuit filed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a grass roots organization that sued the state for systematically shortchanging city schools of funding and thereby reneging on their obligation to provide city students with a “sound basic education.” But, so far, the state has refused to pony up. “Last year,” noted Grimm, during a phone interview, “ it became quite evident that the state was not going to give us the money.” To keep the capital plan moving forward in its first year, Grimm said that, in 2005, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had put in not only the city’s $1.3 billion portion for the year, but had also “advanced another $1.3 billion,” to cover the projected state funding that was necessary to keep the capital plan on track. The good news was that projects scheduled for the first year were able to proceed. But, the reality is that, in the second year of the plan, “The last four years are denuded” of funding, said Grimm. “Here we are in January, 2006, and we haven’t gotten a cent,” she pointed out. When DOE had issued its draft amendment to the capital plan last month, she added, “We said we have a problem. The mayor can’t advance any more money, because there’s no more to advance, so we indicated the proposals now at risk. “We could put P.S./I.S. 237 out to contract if we had state money,” Grimm added. “That’s what’s so terrible about this. We have the site, we’ve done the design and we’re all ready to go, if we had the money.” A major goal of the 2005-2009 capital plan, which calls for the construction of 107 new schools, was to, “Totally eliminate overcrowding in the city, as well as to eliminate trailers,” Grimm emphasized. “This plan was totally based on need.” District 20 – which includes schools in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Boro Park and Sunset Park – is one of the most overcrowded in the city, and the most overcrowded in the borough, according to Community Education Council (CEC) President Carlo Scissura. “That district needs about 5,000 seats,” stressed Grimm. “This school would provide about 1,200.” The capital plan projected eight new schools for the district, and allotted more capacity to District 20 than to any other district in the city. Nancy Gasparino, the president of the District 20 Presidents Council, said that she was “shocked” to learn that the project might be derailed by the lack of state funding. “I thought it was already on its way,” noted Gasparino, who stressed that the district suffers virtually across the board from significant overcrowding. “My daughter sits in a classroom with 36 kids in sixth grade,” Gasparino pointed out. “Almost every school in the district is maxed out. This is appalling. The overcrowding just keeps getting worse. They keep talking about smaller class size so kids can do better, but there are not enough classrooms to house the kids we have.” Howard Feuer, the district manager of Community Board 11, in which the Magen David site is located, remarked that, just to get to this point, DOE had, “Already spent a fortune on this project. That school is really needed, but I’m assuming that every school is really needed. My understanding in Bensonhurst is that they’ve been looking for more sites. I know they’ve looked at a lot of sites.” It would be a significant issue for the community if the property remained as it is now, said Feuer. “We’d be very upset is the building stayed in this condition,” he noted. “We don’t want to see the fence around the building. We’d end up with rodents. We could have squatters. It’s a very beautiful part of the community, which is why they chose the site. I don’t think the community would tolerate it remaining in the condition it’s in. Hopefully, something will give. It would be a horrible thing to let the building waste away, while the kids are still in overcrowded conditions.” Beyond the 23 schools listed by DOE as being in jeopardy are many schools that are considerably less advanced in terms of planning. As many as 80 to 90 of the schools proposed in the plan are in jeopardy, said Grimm, who pointed out that the 23 schools listed by DOE as being at risk are “just this year. “I hate to talk in these terms,” she remarked, “But the state has got to do this. Upstate, new construction is almost entirely paid for by the state. That’s not true here, and it’s not right. Why should our schools be built with city money when schools in Hartsdale are reimbursed? We send tax money to Albany so we help reimburse Hartsdale, so why shouldn’t the state help us? The state should assume responsibility.” It’s not too late for the state to allocate funding for DOE’s capital plan. “There’s still time for Albany to get money to us this year,” Grimm remarked. “People should be calling their assemblymembers and state senators.” D-day for decision making, should Albany not come up with funding for the capital plan, is April 1st, according to Brian McGinn, the manager of operations and intergovernmental relations for the SCA, who spoke about the situation at the January meeting of the District 22 Community Education Council (CEC). According to McGinn, DOE is currently rating projects on a scale of one to five, and deciding which things to axe if state money is not forthcoming.

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