Volume 18 • Issue 39 | February 10 - 16, 2006

Downtown Express file photo by Elisabeth Robert

Mayor Bloomberg announced a new school project for Beekman St. last February with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, left, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Mayor cuts funds for new schools

By Ronda Kaysen

The mayor’s budget proposal slashed funding for two Downtown elementary schools slated for construction this year, despite longstanding promises from the city to build the schools.

Both schools — a new K-8 elementary school on Beekman St. and an annex for P.S. 234 in Tribeca — were the culmination of months of negotiations between the city and developers over large residential projects Downtown. If neither the new school nor the annex is built, overcrowding at P.S. 234, the neighborhood’s only zoned elementary school, is likely to worsen as 13,000 new units of residential housing come on the market in the next few years.

“It would be totally devastating to the school,” said P.S. 234 principal Sandy Bridges. This year, her K-5 school on the corner of Warren and Greenwich Sts. is at 120 percent capacity. Next year, Bridges will close the science room to accommodate an influx of new kindergarteners. “Right now we’re teaching kids in closets. The school cannot sustain this growth anymore, it’s disastrous.”

The annex would have provided Bridges with six new classrooms for her 700-student school when it opened at the start of the 2007 school year. Construction on the annex building—a 258-unit residential development across the street—is already underway and will finish this fall. The K-8 school would have siphoned East Side kids from P.S. 234 to Beekman St. Now, P.S. 234 will absorb all the schoolchildren south of Canal St. and east of West St.

Cutting the two schools from the budget is a direct response to the governor’s budget proposal. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said last month that he would cut $1.8 billion for public schools from his capital building plan because Governor George Pataki’s state budget proposal does not provide enough money for city schools. In testimony before the state Legislature, Bloomberg called Pataki’s school funding plan “an egregious flaw.” Further, the state has failed to deliver a court ordered allocation of $5.6 billion a year to the city’s public schools.

Despite the mayor’s previous statements in support of the two schools, the city now says that until the state provides its portion of the funding for the schools, they will be on hold for the foreseeable future. “Some people may call us liars, but the mayor’s capital plan has always been predicated on both city and state money being there,” said Steve Morello, the Dept. of Education spokesperson. “There are limits to the city’s fiscal resources.”

The Downtown schools are two of 23 critical school construction projects cut from the city’s plans because of the funding dispute, said Morello. The Downtown schools are on the list not because they are low priorities to the mayor, but “because everybody understands how important they are.”

Joanna Rose, a spokesperson for Governor Pataki, insists the governor has not shirked his responsibility. “Sixty-five percent of the city’s qualified expenditures on school construction would be reimbursed by the state, period,” she wrote in an e-mail to Downtown Express. The governor’s office says the mayor is asking the state to pick up an additional 50 percent of the city’s portion of the tab.

Residents see the mayor’s decision to cut two schools blocks away from the World Trade Center as purely political. “If this is all about politics, playing politics with school children is outrageous and we cannot allow this to happen,” said Community Board 1 chairperson Julie Menin. “We need these schools, and we’re going to fight for them.”

The neighborhood was promised a 10,000 sq. ft. annex for P.S. 234 as part of a Sept. 2004 deal brokered between Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and Tribeca developers, creating about 700 new residential units on sites adjacent and across the street from the school. In exchange for the developments on city land, the community was promised the annex and a 28,000 sq. ft. community center, which is still funded in the budget proposal.

“How can you have more housing if you don’t provide more facilities?” said City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who signed the deal with the deputy mayor. “We talk about No Child Left Behind, but we’re leaving an entire community of children behind in this proposal.”

The Doctoroff agreement also pledged to work to create a new K-8 on the East Side of Manhattan. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stepped into the negotiations to secure a site for the school at a 75-story mixed-use tower on Beekman St. Construction on the Bruce Ratner-owned Beekman tower, designed by Frank Gehry, will begin in April.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation set aside $20 million for the school and the city was expected to foot the remaining $44 million for what will be the most expensive school ever built in New York City.

A year ago this week, Mayor Bloomberg stood in Tweed Courthouse with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Speaker Sliver to announce the new 600-seat school. “Building this new school fulfills a promise we have made to the residents of Lower Manhattan and supports our goal of establishing Lower Manhattan as a family-friendly neighborhood,” Bloomberg said in a prepared statement then.

Silver gave the mayor an unusually acerbic tongue-lashing Wednesday. “It is unfortunate that the mayor… is now reneging on a commitment seemingly made only to further his bid for reelection,” he said in a prepared statement, adding that he was “deeply troubled” to learn of the decision and anything short of fully restoring the funding “will show total disregard” for the students.

In his State of the City address last month, the mayor advocated more residential growth Downtown, specifically at the World Trade Center site. He made similar comments during his re-election bid last fall. His decision to cut the only new schools slated for the entire neighborhood smacked of a hollow promise, according to several residents.

“How ironic that the mayor is pushing hard for housing to replace some of the office space at the W.T.C. site, while rejecting the additional classrooms necessary as new residents (many presumably with children) move down here,” said C.B. 1 member Bill Love in an e-mail on Wednesday. “Clearly, the mayor’s office does not have a coherent plan for Lower Manhattan.”

The fate of the two schools caught most residents off guard, as it took them nearly a week of sifting through the dense budget proposal before they discovered the funding simply wasn’t there. Once word was out, it spread through the community in a flurry of e-mails and phone calls Tuesday with residents, educators and elected officials all describing the decision as political posturing.

“It is distressing that the city is not going through with its part [of the Doctoroff agreement,]” said C.B. 1 member Albert Capsouto in an e-mail Wednesday. “Seems like the city has decided to marginalize this community board and go back on its promises… unfortunately, this bad faith seems like a pattern for things to come.”

P.S. 234 P.T.A. president Kevin Doherty spent a good deal of time fielding phone calls and e-mails from anxious parents. “There are a lot of upset and rather confused people, frankly,” he said. “It’s very surprising to see something publicly agreed upon taken off the table.”

The neighborhood, known for its fiery and active residents, is gearing up for a fight it assumes it can win. “The constituency is active, affluent movers and shakers,” said P.S. 234 principal Bridges. “I can’t imagine that these schools aren’t going to be built, but we’re going to have to do a lot of kicking and screaming first.”



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