Volume 18 • Issue 46 | March 31 - April 6, 2006

Albany school deal likely to save Downtown projects facing the axe

By Ronda Kaysen

The state Legislature agreed on a budget Tuesday that will deliver $6.5 billion for school construction in the city, all but ensuring that two Lower Manhattan schools will be built.

In a deal reached late Tuesday night, the Legislature agreed to authorize $11.2 billion over five years for new school construction in New York City, with the state contributing $6.5 billion in bonds and the city contributing $4.7 billion.

The city would get $1.8 billion in State Dormitory Authority bonds this year. This year’s infusion of cash would give the city the funds to build the schools that the mayor threatened to delay until the state increased funding to city schools.

“This is a major, major thing that happened,” said Judy Rapfogel, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s chief of staff. “It’s more than anybody anticipated. It’s what Shelly has been fighting for, for years.”

Last month, the mayor announced that 21 schools had been cut from his budget and another 68 schools risked losing funding if the state did not deliver funding to the city. A new K-8 planned for Beekman St. on the East Side and an annex for P.S. 234 in Tribeca were among the schools on the list. Both had been promised to the community in exchange for high-rise residential developments.

The city would also see a separate increase of $400 million in operating aid in the coming fiscal year, a far cry from the $4.7 billion to $5.6 billion ordered by the courts in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. Last week, a court upheld a lower court’s order that the state must increase school financing to the city.

Last week’s ruling was a mixed win for the C.F.E., upholding the decision that the state is shortchanging the city, but leaving it up to lawmakers — not the courts — to decide how to finance it. But the court decision did put more pressure on the Senate to act, said Rapfogel.

The agreement, if approved by the governor, is a win for the mayor, who cut funding for schools that sit in key legislative districts, pressuring lawmakers in Albany. “This excellent agreement is a result of real and impressive leadership from Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Bruno who rolled up their sleeves, got to work and found a way to deliver for our students,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.

Despite the agreement in the Legislature, Governor George Pataki still needs to approve the budget, which includes $1.8 billion more in spending than his $110.6 billion proposal.

“We just received the legislation,” said Tiffany Galvin, a spokesperson in the State Budget Office. “We can’t make a determination until we’ve reviewed the legislation.”

If the Legislature’s budget is signed into law, the two Downtown schools will likely be built on time. “The programs that were held up will now be able to go forward,” said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for Bloomberg.

The building that will house the annex, Site 5C, is already under construction and construction is expected to begin next month on the 75-story tower that will house the Beekman school.

Downtown residents breathed a collective sigh of relief on learning of the agreement.

“This is what is owed to the parents in the Lower Manhattan community and we’re thrilled that the schools are going to be funded,” said Julie Menin, chairperson of Community Board 1. The community board worked to negotiate a 2004 agreement between the city and developers to build the schools in exchange for the sale of public land for private developments. “This is a promise that was made to our community.”

The Downtown schools sit squarely in Speaker Silver’s district. A source in the mayor’s office told Downtown Express that the schools had been picked to pressure Silver to step up his involvement in securing funding for city schools.

“Everyone recognized how the community was being used. It was a political game, a very smart game, but we recognized the game,” said P.S. 234 principal Sandy Bridges. “In my naiveté, I always assumed that this would fix itself. I was never panicked, I was annoyed, but never panicked.”

P.S. 234 is at 120 percent capacity this year and will lose its science room next year to make way for another classroom. The annex would provide the school with six additional classrooms and the 630-seat Beekman School, slated for a 75-story Frank Gehry-designed tower, would siphon East Side kids away from P.S. 234.

Parents were furious when the mayor threatened to cut funding for the schools, staging a march and rally at City Hall, a protest of the groundbreaking for one of the developments in the deal and a letter-writing campaign to the mayor. Word of an agreement in Albany did little to allay P.S. 234 P.T.A. president Kevin Doherty’s frustrations.

“There’s a fair amount of apprehension. We thought we had an agreement with him [Bloomberg] that seems to be legally pretty tight, yet he chose to disregard the agreement,” said Doherty. “I haven’t heard any guarantees that this level of funding will definitively fund P.S. 234 and the Beekman School.”

This week’s deal is the culmination of a years-long effort to increase funding to city schools. The Democratic-led state Assembly approved a budget two years ago that would have delivered $6.1 billion in operating aid and $1.3 billion in capital funds, but the Republican-controlled Senate and the governor blocked the initiative. The mayor never expressed support for the Assembly’s proposal.

It is unlikely the Legislature would have agreed on a deal to deliver the funds to the city this year either without Bloomberg’s attention. “The mayor’s involvement brought it more to the forefront,” said Rapfogel, adding that Silver was “frustrated” that the mayor had not “been an ally over the years in the fight.”



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