Volume 17, Number 47 | April 15 — 21, 2005

Questions begin over structure for new school

By Ronda Kaysen

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein stood in Tweed Courthouse in February and announced that a new pre-K-8 school would be coming to a Frank Gehry-designed tower on Beekman St., they far from settled the matter.

The $65 million East Side school, the most expensive ever built in New York City, will not open until 2008, but already school officials, community leaders and parents are reconsidering what type of school they would like this new one to be and which of their youngsters they would like it to serve.

“It’s entirely possible that it may not be a pre-K-8,” Paul Hovitz, chairperson of Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee, said in a telephone interview.

Peter Heaney, superintendent for Region 9, appears to be backing away from the original school plan for the site. The Beekman St. school’s fate is far from sealed, he indicated at an April 6 Town Hall meeting about Downtown schools. “We’ll have to have discussions as to how that school is structured,” he said.

Downtown schools are facing a looming overcrowding crisis with 13,000 new residential units expected to crop up south of Canal St. in the next five years. Although many in the community agree the neighborhood needs more schools, they remain divided about whether they need more elementary school seats or a zoned middle school for older children.

“When you’re building new schools, this is the time to think through the admissions formula,” said City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz, who chairs the Council Education Committee and helped bring two new schools to her district, at P.S. 234 parents meeting earlier this week. “If you don’t want a K-8, I think there’s plenty of time.”

For those already entrenched in an elementary school crowding dilemma, the decision is obvious. “I always think in terms of triage, and the biggest emergency needs to be taken care of first and that’s elementary schools,” Sandy Bridges, principal of the overcrowded P.S. 234 in Tribeca, said earlier this month.

P.S. 234 is already at 122 percent capacity and its population is expected to balloon in the coming years with two new residential sites directly opposite the school in the works – adding 700 units of housing to the immediate neighborhood by the start of the 2007 school year, the same year a 150-seat annex built for the school in one of the two developments opens. “There’s a huge explosion of little children,” Bridges said.

P.S. 234’s School Leadership Team recently decided to cancel its pre-K program next fall and for the foreseeable future to make room for the ever-increasing student body, a move that worries Region 9.

“It’s outrageous that the school has to make a decision not to have a pre-K,” Heaney said at the Town Hall meeting, calling the move “upsetting.”

For all the parents and educators panicking about the neighborhood’s elementary schools, there are as many who insist the neighborhood desperately needs a zoned middle school for its children. Currently, the only zoned middle school for the area is the Simon Baruch School on E. 21st St., with no direct subway or bus access for most children.

“Why not zone the East Side middle school and I.S. 89 as two C.B. 1 zoned schools?” suggested C.B. 1 member George Olsen at a Youth and Education Committee meeting held earlier this month to discuss the middle school problem. Olsen wondered aloud if the new school could be structured to mirror P.S./I.S. 89 in Battery Park City – two separate schools that share the same building – thereby creating two middle schools for Downtown students.

But the top person at the Dept. of Education does not appear keen on the idea of repeating the P.S./I.S. 89 model. It now favors the K-8 structure for its new schools, a policy shift Schools Chancellor Klein emphasized at the February press conference. “It will be a big, big thing to have that continuity through elementary and middle school,” Klein, Heaney’s boss, said then.

Downtown secured the East Side school last September as part of a development agreement brokered for the community by City Councilmember Alan Gerson and Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff. Ratner’s Beekman St. site – adjacent to developer Bruce Ratner’s 75-story tower – was not finalized until February after negotiations with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Bloomberg and Ratner. The mayor said the city would put $45 million in the capital budget and $20 million was likely to come from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. if it was needed. Ratner said he was obligated to pay any costs over $65 million.

The community never formally discussed zoning a single K-8 with the region or the Dept. of Ed. during those negotiations, C.B. 1 district manager Paul Goldstein told board members at the Youth and Education Committee meeting. “The only thing we ever said was that we wanted the school for C.B. 1,” Goldstein said. “The way the school morphed into that announcement [by Klein] was not the result of discussions that we had.”

The Tweed Courthouse announcement was news to more than just the community: the City Council Education Committee was unaware of the $65 million project, as well. “It was not in the capital budget and I don’t believe in projects not being in the capital budget,” said Moskowitz at P.S. 234. “It never went through my committee, it’s not a done deal.”

Gerson, who brokered the deal, is not worried about the capital budget. “It’ll be amended into it,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s more of a technicality than anything else.”

All sides agree on one point, at least: the Beekman St. school is a long way off. The Dept. of Ed. generally zones schools six months before they open and a fall 2008 opening date – a year later than initial projections — is optimistic at best. “There’s a serious question here in terms of the projected opening date,” Hovitz said, noting concerns that the 100,000 sq. ft. school may not be designed or constructed until after the tower is completed. “It seems to me that it would be a far more efficient way to do this.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com

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