Volume 19 Issue 47 | April 6 - 12, 2007

Downtown Notebook

Stopping the worst-laid plans of developers and educrats

By Michele Herman

I’m getting close to a big birthday, the kind of milestone that compels a person to do some assessing. From the back of an overcrowded, overheated meeting room filled with unhappy public school parents at 333 Seventh Ave., I’m assessing all right. Because I’m interested in both public education and land use policy, two issues that spawn a lot of meetings, I’m assessing the chunk of my life I’ve given over to meetings like this one. I mean the kind where progressive New Yorkers come together not to make progress but merely to fend off really bad plans.

You can divide up the populace into any number of opposing teams: liberals and conservatives, haves and have-nots, givers and takers. I see the city in terms of foisters and foistees. Between the permanent real-estate bubble and an administration madly scrambling to fix the education system (or least to create the appearance that it has) before its clock runs out, there’s a whole lot of foisting going on.

Tonight’s meeting of the District 2 P.T.A. Presidents’ Council, a group of smart, savvy parents, is about, among other topics, the “fair student funding” formula the city is foisting on the school system. I don’t know enough about school funding to dissect it myself, and I do have some faith that it stems from a sincere desire to redress inequities. But from the informed discussion tonight it sounds like a sinkhole of unintended consequences. There’s a well-founded suspicion in the room that the underfunded schools will get their additional funding not from new sources but from so-called overfunded ones (i.e. District 2). As one parent, a structural engineer, eloquently puts it, this is like tearing structural beams out of a sound building to help support an unsound building. By tying teacher salaries to individual school budgets, the formula also seems destined to drive stable schools (whose teachers stay longer and therefore command higher salaries) into dire instability.

Because this is not a hysterical group but a constructive one, we brainstorm instead of fulminating. Brainstorming used to be a mechanism for generating creative new ideas, but lately it seems to be used mostly to organize battle strategies.

Of the similarly depressing foistee meetings I’ve attended lately, some are aimed at countering plans like this one that are merely misguided and hastily conceived. But often we’re fighting plans that are misguided and rapacious, like Related Company’s Las-Vegas-on-the-Hudson plan for Pier 40.

Before I get back to 333 Seventh Ave., I should mention another bad plan of the moment: Donald Trump’s looming 45-story residential hotel in western Soho. A couple of Sundays ago I attended a rally on the site. A councilman from Queens put on his big angry-councilman voice and yelled, “It’s time the real-estate industry stopped controlling this city!” We foistees dutifully cheered, but you could sense we were all thinking, puleeze, the real-estate industry will control this city until the day it sinks to the harbor floor from the weight of all the granite countertops.

I think back to the day when we foistees would score an occasional success. We’d yell loud enough to defeat a bad plan, or the bad plan would die from the ice in its own heart, like the jails on floating barges that were all the rage in the Koch and Dinkins years. I have some reason to hope that Related’s Pier 40 will fall into that category. And where education is concerned, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has been known to temper some of his more rash ideas when the public outcry gets vociferous enough.

But for the most part I’ve downgraded my goals. I’ve sat in too many meetings where the Department of City Planning cherry-picked zoning policies to suit the desires of developers, or where the D.O.E. treated students a little too much like figures in a ledger book that will surely fall into line with another round or two of high-stakes tests.

So many new plans have been foisted on our poor, hard-working principals in such a short time that many of us P.T.A. officers see our role as helping to keep them from succumbing to nervous exhaustion.

One case in point is the third total reorganization of the D.O.E.’s structure, in progress now. It’s a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, not to mention the soap and the tub. Any dolt looking at a map could have told you the formation of the mega-regions a few years ago was an unworkable structure. These were meant to save money and reduce corruption at the local level. As of July 1, the D.O.E. is dissolving the regions. We’re told this will save money, too. We’re also told that the new structure will “empower” schools (one of those words that always seems to mean its opposite). The new structure involves asking principals to choose from among three kinds of “support organizations,” one of which is so far nonexistent. I have much more to say about this plan and its unintended consequences. But I’m afraid I’d start fulminating at the foisters, and that wouldn’t be seemly at my age.

Michele Herman is a member of the P.T.A. board at I.S. 89 in Battery Park City.

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