Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Grand Plan Encounters A Setback

Yesterday, the City Comptroller’s office released an excellent report on school overcrowding, focusing on certain “hot spots” in each borough, where a boom in residential development is overtaking school capacity.
It follows an analysis put out by the Manhattan Borough President a few weeks ago,that also showed how inadequate the DOE’s planning process is when it comes to our schools.
Yesterday's NY Times ran an article that describes the crisis of overcrowding that now exists in downtown Manhattan; though the same story could be written about neighborhoods in almost every part of the city.
Indeed, not a single school district in the city could achieve the smaller class size goals now mandated by the state and adopted by the city, calling for an average of 20 students per class in K-3 and 23 in all other grades.
This new Comptroller’s report points out that there are many policy levers that could be used to solve this problem, by providing incentives to developers to build schools along with new housing and office space. We are co-chairing a task force on school overcrowding, hosted by the Manhattan Borough president’s office – and we hope to devise some other practical solutions that can be used throughout the city.
Our experience has been that there are multiple ways of finding sites for schools and devising affordable ways to build them if people put their minds to it. By taking matters into their own hands, parents in Greenwich Village held meetings with a developer who has now offered the old Foundling Hospital on W. 17 St. for a new school in District 2.
This should not be the responsibility of parents but instead, the Mayor and the Chancellor, who have utterly failed to show leadership in this regard. Despite the fatalism often expressed, there is no reason that we could not eliminate overcrowding and reduce class size if there is the political will and commitment to do so.
Too often this administration has either claimed the problem did not exist, or said there were no good sites for schools, or, as the Mayor recently commented on his radio show, that New Yorkers didn’t want schools placed in their neighborhoods.
Rather than helping to solve the problem, the DOE has made it worse by putting new small schools and charter schools in existing school buildings; as each new small school eats up classroom space with office and cluster rooms.
See for example, the recent NY Times column by Sam Freedman about how the placement of small schools in Lafayette HS has led to an increased number of 9th graders, many of them extremely high needs, at nearby John Dewey HS, leading to safety problems and now threatening to overwhelm the school.
The administration has also been extremely slow in building new schools; see this graph of how many seats have been created over the last six years.
As a result, according to the latest Mayor’s Management Report, there has been a jump in the number of elementary schools that are overcapacity – 27% last school year, compared to 24.3% the year before.
Actually, using the DOE’s “target” definition that includes class sizes of 20 in grades K-3 and 28 in grades 4-8th (which are still much larger than the city’s adopted class size goals), 48% of our elementary school students, and 63% of our middle school students are in schools over 100% capacity.
As Comptroller Thompson and MBP Stringer have now pointed out, the city’s next five year capital plan, to be released in November, must be far more ambitious than the last, if we are serious about providing NYC children with a quality education. We will have a petition online soon, urging the administration to do so.

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