Looking beyond the Albany school deal
The Albany budget agreement to provide $6.5 billion to build schools is a good beginning to ending the historic inequity city children have suffered in education funding. The 21 schools Mayor Bloomberg took out of the budget two months ago including the P.S. 234 school annex and a new K-8 on Beekman St. are expected to be put back in once the deal is signed into law, perhaps as soon as the next few days. Although it looks like it is going to end well it wont mean all is well unless the mayor moves to repair the damage he did in working toward a good result.
Clearly the mayor had to threaten to cause some pain in order to get the governor and the state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to finally agree to more education money. And perhaps it is true that in order to get the Albany Republicans to agree, Bloomberg needed to manufacture a fight with Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver by threatening the Downtown schools in Silvers district. Silver and Bloomberg, though they were not working together, both scored big for Lower Manhattan and the rest of the city by getting the money.
In the process, though, the mayor cast doubt on community benefit agreements a valuable tool to build a better city that does not yet have enough legal protection. C.B.A.s are deals that benefit neighborhoods made by community representatives and developers or government officials in exchange for agreeing to projects. The Beekman school and the P.S. 234 annex were the result of a Sept. 2004 letter, or C.B.A., signed by Bloombergs deputy mayor for economic development, Dan Doctoroff, and Councilmember Alan Gerson.
As a direct result of the letter, Gerson convinced his colleagues on the Council to approve two city land sales to Tribeca developers with projects near P.S. 234. C.B. 1 also recommended approving both plans despite concerns that the heights of the buildings would overwhelm the neighborhood.
The letter included a promise to build the annex in one of the projects, on Site 5C, which is under construction, and said the city had $44 million in its capital budget to build the east side school. The agreement was clearly worded, but when the mayor and his aides came up with a new political strategy, they felt free to deny the letters obvious meaning.
Bloombergs schools chancellor, Joel Klein, told this paper that he spent the $44 million elsewhere and that without more state money, he had no plans to ever fund Beekman, even though state funds were never a condition for the $44 million. Bloomberg went to a groundbreaking for the other Tribeca site, 5B, and listed all of the planned amenities that would someday come to both sites except for the one parents wanted the most the school annex.
Would a community be foolish to ever sign another similar agreement with the city or a developer again? Yes, unless Bloomberg provides concrete assurances that these deals will be enforced and not ignored when political winds change. If communities cant trust the city, it will prevent projects that are good for the city from happening.
These deals are often wins for everybody. P.S. 234 and P.S./I.S. 89 were built because of pressure from C.B. 1 and other Downtown residents and they led to rising real estate prices and tax rolls in Tribeca and Battery Park City. C.B.A.s often involve park improvements, which also increase real estate value.
City Hall has good reason to celebrate today, but tomorrow Bloomberg has to begin fixing what he broke.