Volume 18 • Issue 45 | March 24 - 30, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Jefferson Siegel

Dep. Mayor Dennis Walcott said an Albany deal to build two Downtown schools is “really close,” but at a Community Board 1 meeting Tuesday, parents grilled him on the mayor’s decision to put the promised schools on the chopping block.

Facing parent heat, Walcott says school deal is close

By Ronda Kaysen

An agreement with the state on funding for two Downtown schools is 10 days away, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott told Lower Manhattan parents this week.

Last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that 21 New York City schools had been cut from the city’s capital budget and another 68 schools were at risk of being delayed, including 11 in which preliminary work had begun. Among the schools on the list were two Downtown schools—an annex for P.S. 234 in Tribeca and the Beekman School, a new K-8 planned for the Eastside.

The mayor insists the city does not have the money to fund the schools because of a budget shortfall from Albany. Bloomberg said that he needs $6.5 billion in state funds to complete a five-year, $13.1 billion capital construction plan. The governor maintains the city has received its due.

But as Albany nears its April 1 budget deadline, negotiations between the city and state are heating up.
“We have 10 more days to go as far as drawing the money from Albany goes,” Walcott told Downtown parents at a

Community Board 1 public meeting on Tuesday night. “We’re close, we’re really close.”

Eileen Larrabee, a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, said the speaker and the mayor have had “numerous conversations” about the schools and budget in recent weeks. “In every conversation the speaker presses the issue for the new schools with the mayor,” she said.

The state Legislature has proposed a multi-year plan to deliver $1.8 billion to city schools. The Senate produced a plan to provide New York City with about $140 million to pay for debt service so the city could borrow $1.8 billion.

Walcott called the Senate’s plan “totally unacceptable” and voiced support for the Assembly’s plan.

The money in the capital budget is only a portion of what some say the city is owed. A Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit found that the city was owed $5.6 billion a year in operational funds and a one-time payment of $9 billion in capital funds to city schools. The mayor has not stepped up pressure for those funds and the governor is appealing the ruling.

Parents were not appeased by Walcott’s confidence that their schools might soon be funded. Many parents questioned why the two schools made it onto the list in the first place. Both of the Downtown schools were part of a written agreement among the city, developers and the community to build high-rise residential towers on public land in exchange for the schools. The community agreed to higher and bulkier buildings in order to secure the schools.

“Our city leaders are failing us,” said Eric Colby, a P.S. 234 parent. “The contract was fundamentally tied with the sale of the land. There’s an implied commitment for using the funds to build the schools.”

Walcott said that the agreement, signed by Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and City Councilmember Alan Gerson, was always contingent on state funding. “Part of what we’re doing is making sure we get the state dollars that were part of that,” he said.

The agreement promised $44 million of the Dept. of Ed. budget to build an Eastside school, contingent upon $25 million from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. It made no mention of state funds.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein told Downtown Express a few weeks ago that the $44 million set aside for the Beekman school was shifted to other projects and the school was in doubt when he announced it last year. Silver accused Klein of “lying” and said if the chancellor doesn’t apologize, Bloomberg should consider asking for Klein’s resignation.

Gerson, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, challenged Walcott’s characterization of the Sept. 2004 agreement he signed. “I was present at the negotiations and I can assure you that… there was never any mention of C.F.E. as a prerequisite and these were among the most detailed negotiations that I have been engaged in,” Gerson said.

Parents also voiced concern about overcrowding at their schools. P.S. 234, the only elementary school for the neighborhood east of West St. to the East River and from Canal St. to the Battery, is at 120 percent capacity this year and is expected to grow more next year. The annex would cost $6.5 million and would have provided an additional six classrooms.

The 630-seat Beekman School would siphon Eastside kids away from P.S. 234. The $65 million school is slated for a 75-story tower on Beekman St., which will break ground next month.

When a P.S. 234 parent asked Walcott how schoolchildren should cope with losing their science room next year to crowding, Walcott, who oversees education issues for the mayor, was unaware of the problem. “If you are not aware that we have to remove a science lab next year, you have not done your homework,” heckled one audience member from the crowd.

“If your plan to get the money released from the state doesn’t work out, we need to have a backup plan,” said Kathy Sussell, parent coordinator for P.S. 234.

“We have been looking at contingency plans as far as options for neighborhoods throughout the city,” said Walcott, although he declined to comment to Downtown Express about what those contingency efforts might entail.



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