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New District 21 Schools Locked In Holding Pattern

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An overcrowded Bensonhurst elementary school may be remedied soon, although the construction of two new District 21 schools – planned to begin within the next three years – are being placed on hold. Community Education Council (CEC) 21 of the southwest Brooklyn district unanimously passed a resolution to amend the elementary school zoning line between P.S. 128 and P.S. 97 last week, which, if implemented by the Department of Education, will start future kindergarteners who live between Bay Parkway and West 10th Street from 23rd Avenue to Quentin Road at the former rather than the latter. The amendment is intended to fill the more than 30 percent of empty seats at P.S. 128, while reducing the burden that operating at more than 110 percent capacity has placed on P.S. 97, a school at 1855 Stillwell Avenue fit for 788 students that has 871. P.S. 128, located at 2075 84th Street, can hold 473 students but has only 304. “It’s a burden on both schools,” said Superintendent Richard D’Auria at the February 8 meeting, which took place at Intermediate School 303. The CEC – an advisory board to the schools chancellor and the city created in 2003 – held public hearings at the two schools in January after first presenting the proposed amendment in December 2005. The change would take place over six years and affect only new students entering the K-5 schools, allowing current students to remain where they are until middle school. “We do it gradually…That’s what makes it a lot more palatable,” said D’Auria. Once the student populations are moved, the change “will ultimately mean that there will be some shifting of staff” as the need arises, D’Auria said, but that will also be done gradually. That was the CEC’s good news. Its bad news was that Governor George Pataki is continuing to fight a June 2003 State Supreme Court order to pay $15 billion to New York City schools – $5.6 billion in operating aid and $9.2 billion in building aid – for past inequities in State funding, as decided in a case brought by the non-profit Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE). As a result, the city has had to compensate to keep projects moving forward, although the School Construction Authority (SCA) is placing future plans to improve libraries, science labs, emergency and athletic facilities, and construct new schools on hold if the State funds do not materialize. The SCA’s 2005-09 Five Year Capital Plan – which took effect July 1, 2004 – was created with the expectation that state funds would become available as ordered by the court, but the money remains to be seen 19 months into the plan. In a proposed amendment to the five year plan, the final draft of which will be released in the coming week, additional improvements requested by 25 schools have been added at a cost of $20 million, making the lack of state funds even more dismal. The SCA’s ability to revise capital plans annually, prior to construction, rather than retroactively, is thanks to a new and welcomed policy accompanying Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Department of Education takeover. Also refreshingly new for the SCA is the distinction within the plan between projects to be funded by the city, and those depending on state funding. Among the upgrades and projects on hold in District 21 are fire protection systems for P.S. 226, 6006 23rd Avenue and P.S. 329, 2929 West 30th Street; playground redevelopments for P.S. 121, 5301 20th Avenue and P.S. 216, 350 Avenue X; and the construction of two 630-seat schools, K726 and K741, at locations to be determined, which would cost a total of $96 million to build. Auditorium upgrades for I.S. 98, 1401 Emmons Avenue; I.S. 281, 8787 24th Avenue; and P.S. 288, 2950 West 25th Street – which would cost a total of less than $5 million – and a gym upgrade for P.S. 188, 3314 Neptune Avenue, scheduled to begin this year for a cost of about $55,000 – are also on hold, explained Frederick Maley, a senior manager at the SCA. And the list does not include high schools. Half of the SCA’s $13.1 billion capital plan is based on the absent state funds. The city has put it in more than its $6.5 billion expected share. “We’re really facing a dire strait in the later years of this five-year plan,” said Maley. “The risk we’re facing here if we don’t receive the state funds, come the fifth year, [is] we’re going to have $200 million to work with.” That $200 million is the SCA’s emergency funds – reserved for situations like a recent roof collapse at P.S. 215, 415 Avenue S. “The ceiling came down on the fifth floor and before you knew it they had to take off the whole roof and redo the whole building,” recounted City Councilmember Domenic Recchia in support of keeping rainy-day funds untouched. “Many things that are in the five-year plan never get done and the reason is because the money’s not there,” said Recchia. “Without this additional funding we don’t know what we’re going to do.” Recchia and 46 other council members recently sent a letter to the governor in response to his 2006-07 budget proposal, which raises education funding by less than $1 billion, saying, “This falls far short of what is actually needed to meet the needs of New York City’s schoolchil­dren…Our children hold the key to the future for New York City and we must invest in them.” The benefit of that investment, Maley explained, is that money is saved later as “students get a better job, they’re more productive, they’re paying taxes, [and] there’s money coming into the city.” CEC District 21 president Carmine Santa Maria recently sent a letter to the governor as well, urging him to drop his appeal and comply with the CFE ruling, and calling him “Scrooge.” The letter is addressed to “Governor of the Whole State of New York.” About the governor’s refusal to pay, he said, “It has to be stopped and we have to stop it. Get this man to move.” CEC 21 board member Ronald Stewart also announced a March 28 bus trip for parents to take their frustrations to Albany. Calling the governor a “lame duck,” Stewart said, “You have to let our legislators know that we need this money and it’s due us.” Likewise, Maley called on parents to “mobilize and be a force in obtaining this state funding” to assure that the construction of new schools – some of which have already been designed – moves forward. “What we’re doing is we’re taking our designs and we’re putting them on the shelf,” he said, dismayed. “Meanwhile the children of New York City are suffering.”

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