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Lack of Funding Threatens Fortway Conversion

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After all the hoopla, the Department of Education (DOE) may be unable to make good on its proposal to convert the shuttered Fortway Theater into a school. The project – which generated some degree of controversy among people living near the site, 6722 Fort Hamilton Parkway — appears to have stalled because of a lack of state funding for the DOE’s $13 billion 2005-2009 capital plan, a turn of events that has jeopardized many of the construction projects in that plan, according to the DOE. As many as 80 to 90 of the schools proposed in the plan are in jeopardy, said Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, who heads up the finance and administration division of the DOE. The sudden turn of events has members of the educational community steaming. Carlo Scissura, the president of the District 20 Community Education Council (CEC) blasted both the DOE and the School Construction Authority (SCA) for lack of foresight in constructing the plan, and counting on funding that had not been committed. “I think the DOE and the SCA have dropped the ball,” he pronounced. “Why go to community meetings, put pressure on the CEC and Community Board 10 to approve the site, have us put our reputations on the line, when they knew they didn’t have the money to build? “We’re being told, go find sites,” Scissura went on. “It already takes a long time to select a site and then there’s never been any money. It seems to me the capital plan is a fraudulent document, putting it together when the money isn’t there. While I think the state has huge blame, the city has to stop putting out documents that are really without merit.” Significant Overcrowding District 20, Scissura stressed, is desperately in need of additional classrooms to reduce rampant overcrowding. It is the most crowded district in Brooklyn, Scissura pointed out, and among the three most crowded districts citywide. District 20 includes schools in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Boro Park and Sunset Park. He said the district would be, “Organizing a campaign to get to the governor and to the four Republican senators who represent the city in Albany,” as a way of possibly getting the state to pony up some capital funds. Even without that, if approximately $4 billion in city funding is still left to fund the capital plan, Scissura said, “Then the DOE needs to take a very close look at the overcrowded districts in the city. If there is any money to be spent, it should go into areas of high need. Obviously, District 20 would be one of those areas.” Nancy Gasparino, the president of the District 20 Presidents Council, also expressed anger over the turn of events. Gasparino, who said that Presidents Council was poised to begin a petition drive, noted, “Everybody is very upset, and there hasn’t been a lot of information coming down to tell us what’s going on. I wish somebody would let me know the situation.” “Very Disheartening” Gasparino pointed out that District 20 – which had been allocated eight new schools with over 5,000 seats in the capital plan – had been waiting for a long time for additional classroom space to ease the overcrowding. Up until recently, she said, the SCA would go out and look at sites called in to them. “Not any more,” Gasparino went on, “and that’s a shame. They go through the motions, but is any of it going to happen? It’s very dishearten­ing.” As for the overcrowding in the district, it continues to get worse, Gasparino said. Noting that class sizes at her daughter’s intermediate school had grown from 27 to 34, she said that each of the schools the district hoped to have would ease overcrowding in surrounding schools. For the Fortway, said Gasparino, schools such as Public School 170, Public School 176 and Public School 127 would all get some relief. “Everybody’s crammed in,” Gasparino stressed. The uncertainty of the situation is burdening the community, opined Spiro Geroulanos, of Trident Developers which bought the Fortway last summer for $4.1 million. “It’s bad for the Fortway and bad for the neighborhood,” he contended. “If the SCA is not committing to a location, this or any other, but is not releasing the property for others to utilize to the advantage of the community, the community is getting hurt.” Financial Hardship The situation is also causing a hardship for him, said Geroulanos. While, he said, SCA had told him from the beginning, “To go ahead with my plans, because nothing is definite, although they want the site,” he pointed out that DOE’s interest in the Fortway had practical consequences for him. “We try to lease the space and people say, we want to lease it, but we’re not interested because we don’t want to have problems with SCA,” Geroulanos recounted. “They’ve been working on the location since just after we signed the contract for the property. They notified us in March (of 2005) that they were looking at the site.” But, he went on, nothing is definite. “As a small builder and investor, I do one project a year,” Geroulanos explained. “What do you do? Do you stop everything, close down your office and lay everybody off? I wish they would commit, one way or the other. They might sit on this for two, three, four years.” Nonetheless, DOE contends that counting on state funding to help make the capital plan a reality was not unreasonable, based on the results of an ongoing lawsuit brought 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.” According to Grimm, the state owes the city educational system $9.1 billion in 2004 dollars, based on that lawsuit. “Based on Need” “The capital plan is a plan based on need,” said DOE Spokesperson Alicia Maxey. “The mayor increased the city capital dollars by 40 percent to $6.5 billion. The other $6.5 billion must come from the state which has under-funded us for years. The CFE court recognized this. “We have every right to expect the state money to be there,” Maxey went on. “ The future of the Fortway site remains ‘at risk’ until the state funding is forthcoming. The president of CEC 20 knows this. We call on CEC leadership to contact representatives in Albany to urge Albany action on CFE money for capital projects that are critical to continued progress of our reforms but simply not affordable by the city.” In September, 2005, the SCA began the process of acquiring the site, for use as a school. Public hearings were held by the District 20 CEC and CB 10. The school proposed by the SCA for the empty theater would be an early childhood center, with approximately 22 classrooms, serving approximately 440 children in pre-kindergarten through second grade.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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