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BY SAM SPOKONY | School advocates are still reeling from the recent announcement that the city’s Department of Education plans to build only one new 456-seat school below Canal St. as part of its five-year capital budget.
Many, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, believed that two schools of that size would be coming to Community Board 1, which is set to face more overcrowding as residential neighborhoods like the Financial District and Battery Park City continue to grow at faster rates than most others throughout the city.
“I was disappointed to learn that only one new school is planned,” Silver said at the Dec. 3 meeting of his School Overcrowding Task Force. “I’m asking D.O.E. to have at least 1,000 seats in C.B. 1 by the time the plan is finalized [next June].”
Michael Mirisola, a representative of D.O.E.’s School Construction Authority, had made the announcement at a District 2 Community Education Council meeting last month. He explained that the other new school listed in the capital plan — the one that was originally thought to be below Canal St. — will actually be located in Hudson Square, as part of Trinity Real Estate’s development just north of the street.
Trinity’s school is planned to be located at the base of a residential tower that will be built on Duarte Square, on the north side of Canal St. at Sixth Ave., according to past presentations by the developer.
Even if the school ends up on Canal St., it may provide little comfort to the Lower Manhattan school advocates, who have often voiced concerns about children crossing the five-lane roadway which feeds the Holland Tunnel.
Eric Greenleaf, a Downtown school advocate who has been closely analyzing school overcrowding for years, said in an interview that he was skeptical that the Hudson Square school would be able to offer many or any seats to Tribecans because of all the planned development to the north.
In addition, at the Dec. 3 task force meeting, he pointed out that both birth rate statistics and publicly available U.S. Census data — which show that the neighborhoods below Canal St. collectively grew by around 77 percent from 2000 to 2010, higher than any other part of the city — fly in the face of the city’s plans.
“We could let a smart eight-year-old look up census data, and they would probably do a better job of dealing with it than the D.O.E. has,” Greenleaf said at the meeting.
A report released by C.B. 1 in March showed that, from 2000 to 2010, the Financial District saw a 242 percent increase in children aged 0-4, and a 158 percent increase in those aged 5-9. Over the same period, Battery Park City saw a 149 percent increase in children aged 0-4, and a 75 percent increase in those aged 5-9.
“This is simply the wrong message to be sending to these fast-growing residential communities,” C.B. 1 Chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes said of D.O.E.’s plans. She and others have stressed that a lack of new schools could soon have the effect of forcing young families out of those neighborhoods, or preventing others from moving in.
Now that the bad news has been broken, the primary strategy for many school advocates involves pressuring D.O.E. to amend its capital plan to include at least several hundred more seats for the school to be sited below Canal St.
Paul Hovitz, co-chairperson of C.B. 1’s Youth and Education Committee, has pointed to the fact that a similar situation took place during D.O.E.’s planning for the new Peck Slip school, which is now scheduled to move to its new building in 2015. In that case, a plan that originally called for 456 seats at the site was later changed to include 712 seats.
“As we did with Peck Slip, we are hoping beyond hope that these new seats will be increased to over 700,” Hovitz said.
It seems as though at least one person at D.O.E. has already acknowledged that that may be a very possible outcome.
In an interview last week, Hovitz said that he has had multiple conversations with a D.O.E official who told him that, when looking for a site for the new C.B. 1 school, it would be “prudent” to find a site that could hold not only 456 seats but several hundred more.
Mirisola was also present at Silver’s task force meeting. When asked about D.O.E.’s timeframe for locating the new school, he said he wasn’t sure, but added that the process would not start until after the capital plan is approved next June, which would mean the incoming de Blasio administration will have the final say on the plan.
“So then we won’t even have a chance to incubate that new school before next September,” said Hovitz.