Squadron: Addresses ‘explosion of school-age population’
By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
With a third of city elementary schools significantly overcrowded, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday signed a bill into law that will eventually help alleviate packed classrooms.
The legislation, sponsored by state Senator Daniel Squadron and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, is expected to add more seats in neighborhoods experiencing population booms, like Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO, Sunset Park, Bay Ridge and Williamsburg, along with crowded areas in Queens and lower Manhattan.
The law requires the School Construction Authority (SCA) to collect population data from several city sources and use this information in connection with the five-year educational facilities capital plan.
P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights, for example, has been forced to eliminate space dedicated to preschool kids because it doesn’t have enough room for them anymore -- and thousands of additional residential units are planned nearby.
According to SCA, in October 2013 P.S. 8 had a capacity for 524 students at its Hicks Street location in Brooklyn Heights, but 742 children were enrolled there, for a 142 percent utilization rate.
While the law goes into effect immediately, a new five year capital facilities plan won’t come out until 2019.
Testifying before the state Senate, Squadron said in June that SCA did not previously factor in forward-looking data from City Planning, the Department of Buildings or the Department of Health – like births and building permits. Over the last several years, “The SCA seemed shocked at the explosion of school-age population” in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, Squadron said.
The bill also requires that the data is distributed not just for school districts, “which are pretty wacky, crossing district lines and neighborhoods,” but on the Community Board level. “The Community Boards and the community will know what the projected school-age population is for their neighborhoods for the first time,” Squadron said.
Noting that he has a 3-year-old, “The knowledge that you’re going to have a seat in your local school is fundamental to your ability to make a life and invest in your community,” Squadron said.
“In my own Lower Manhattan community, families spend anxious months with their children on waitlists that can run over 100 names only to find classrooms filled to the brim and schools far over their capacity,” Speaker Silver said in a release on Tuesday.
SCA: A refinement
Fred Maley, director of external affairs at SCA, said the new law “is not inventing the wheel, it’s refining the wheel.”
SCA has always looked at demographics, but at the “sub-district level,” he told the Eagle on Wednesday. Each sub-district might include two or three neighborhoods. “This change should address people’s concerns. We live in neighborhoods, not sub-districts.”
Maley said the capital plan is adjusted on a yearly basis. “Every new proposed amendment is presented to the local Community Education Council (CEC), “which gives feedback to SCA. We ask the CEC to give us their priority projects.”
“There are 32 CECs in the city. It’s not just, ‘Let’s fund it.’ It’s a citywide budget. Everybody can’t get everything,” he said.
About P.S. 8 in particular, Maley said, “The irony at P.S. 8 is we recently finished an addition, and it’s still overcrowded. That neighborhood’s population is booming.
"The new emphasis on using neighborhood-level data, and more useful data, such as building permits for new apartments and houses and mapping recent births, will help the Department of Education forecast enrollments more accurately, build needed schools in a timely manner, and alleviate school overcrowding,” Eric Greenleaf, NYU professor and also a member of Speaker Silver's School Overcrowding Task Force said in a release.
Stringer: DOE could do better
An audit of two years’ worth of school date released last month by Comptroller Scott Stringer found that NYC’s Department of Education’s DOE’s Offices of Portfolio Management and Space Planning (separate from the SCA) didn’t follow through when it came to overcrowding.
DOE “lacked any statistical or documentary evidence of steps it took to implement, track and act upon recommendations to ease overcrowding in the City’s schools during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school year,” Stringer said in the audit.
“DOE didn’t keep records of the remedial actions it took to reduce overcrowding, let alone what worked and what didn’t.,” he added.
In the 59 most crowded school buildings in the city, Stringer’s audit found that over-utilization ranged from 133 to 238 percent.
In Brooklyn, the audit looked at 13 crammed schools, including P.S. 319 in Williamsburg, the most overcrowded school in the audit, with 238 percent utilization. Other especially crowded schools include Brooklyn College Academy, at 205 percent utilization; P.S. 399 in Flatbush, at 187 percent utilization; and P.S. 127 in Bay Ridge, at 177 percent utilization.
The new law authorizes the SCA to work with NYC's office of City Planning and Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Buildings and Housing Preservation and Development to access relevant data.
It also requires the SCA to publicly respond to issues raised at CEC hearings on both school sitings and in response to the capital plan