Downtown Express photo by Julie Shapiro
Residents of the Whole Foods building, foreground, are hoping to be zoned for P.S. 234, background.
School panel has one last week to answer zoning question
By Julie Shapiro
One week before the District 2 Community Education Council decides how to rezone Lower Manhattan’s schools, the proposal known as Option 2 is gaining momentum.
Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee endorsed Option 2 in an advisory vote Tuesday night. Several board members said they supported Option 2 because they were concerned that the other proposal on the table, Option 3R, could overcrowd P.S. 234.
“I don’t think [Option 3R] could work,” said Liat Silberman, a board member and former president of P.S. 234’s P.T.A.
The District 2 Community Education Council, made up of parents largely selected by P.T.A.’s, will make a final decision on the zoning at a meeting next Wed., Jan. 27. The community board’s view is advisory, but it could influence some members of the C.E.C.
Dozens of parents on each side showed up Tuesday night to argue their case before the community board, hefting volumes of petition signatures and charts about pedestrian safety.
Wearing red, the supporters of Option 2 were mostly southwest Tribeca residents who wanted to attend P.S. 234. Those families oppose Option 3R because it would divert southern Tribeca, including those who live across from P.S. 234 in the Whole Foods building, to P.S. 89 in Battery Park City. A few north Tribeca parents who would go to 234 under both options also spoke in favor of 2 because they said it would be unfair to make their southern Tribeca neighbors cross the West Side Highway to get to school.
Wearing black, the Option 3R supporters came from across Lower Manhattan and included northeast Tribeca parents who want P.S. 234; Gateway Plaza parents who want P.S./I.S. 276; and southeastern Financial District parents who are hoping for the Spruce Street School.
Both sides argued that their commutes to school would be unsafe unless their preferred option was chosen, with 3R proponents citing Broadway, Park Row and the south end of West St. as the unsafe hot spots. The community board is also concerned about safety and reassured parents that they would be able to get buses under either option because children will be walking across areas that are under construction.
The two zoning options under consideration. Spruce Street school is also known as P.S. 397.
The board members appeared to base their decision less on the safety worries and more on the fear that Option 3R would overcrowd P.S. 234.
Option 3R would zone all of Tribeca north of Warren and Murray Sts. for P.S. 234, and that could be too broad an area, said Tricia Joyce, a public member of C.B. 1. Under Option 2, P.S. 234 would hold Tribeca west of Church St., which Joyce and others thought would be more reasonable. Joyce said she was basing her view on the limited data the D.O.E. has released, on her knowledge of the schools and sibling patterns and on her gut instinct.
Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, which runs after-school programs in P.S. 234, also wondered whether 3R would overcrowd the school, but he abstained from the community board vote. Local politicians have also not taken a position on the divisive zoning issue.
Elizabeth Rose, director of portfolio planning at the Dept. of Education, disagreed with the board’s assessment and said both options were designed to evenly distribute children among Downtown’s four elementary schools, based on the previous two years. The D.O.E. has not estimated the numbers for the 2010 kindergarten class.
Still, the Youth and Education Committee voted 6-2 in favor of Option 2, with two abstentions.
Julie Menin, C.B. 1’s chairperson, led Tuesday’s meeting but did not vote. However, she said she supported Option 3R because it has broader support in the community.
The divided crowd of more than 100 people mostly stayed quiet during the board’s vote, although a couple of 3R supporters yelled at community board members once the meeting concluded. Others gathered around C.E.C. member Michael Markowitz, who is a strong advocate for Option 3R.
“The community board should be listening to the community,” said Foster Maer, a Warren St. resident who prefers Option 3R. “Why did the board vote against the community?”
Danielle Elder, a Spruce Street School parent, said Option 2 would divide the burgeoning community of Seaport and Financial District residents that has sprung up around the school in the last year.
“To take away what we’ve worked so hard to build is unjust,” she said.
The vote pleased Option 2 supporters, including Grace Flood, a Greenwich Court resident who called the committee’s decision “a step in the right direction.” Greenwich Court would be sent to P.S. 234 under either plan, but an earlier version of Option 3 would have sent half the complex to P.S. 89.
Several Option 2 supporters who spoke Tuesday night lived in the Whole Foods building across from P.S. 234. Jung Min Lee said her family made “major lifestyle and financial decisions” in moving into the building a few years ago, and P.S. 234 was an important part of that equation.
But Lee’s daughter was not granted a seat in 234 in last fall’s lottery, so she is attending kindergarten at P.S. 276 instead. As Lee walks her daughter to 276’s temporary location in Tweed Courthouse each morning, she said she passes dozens of families bringing their kids in the opposite direction, to P.S. 234, which she said makes no sense. Next year, her commute to the school’s permanent location in southern Battery Park City will be even longer.
The final decision on school zoning will likely come next week at the Community Education Council’s Jan. 27 meeting. Rose said Tuesday night that the city would follow whatever decision the C.E.C. makes.
Rose also reminded the crowd that this rezoning is only temporary, because it does not take into account new buildings that are under construction. Regardless of whether Option 2 or Option 3R is selected, the zones will not last more than a few years, Rose said.
Still, the repercussions of this temporary rezoning will last more than a couple of years, because younger siblings will continue being grandfathered in long after the zones change.
If the C.E.C. does not come to a decision by Feb. 1, the first day of kindergarten registration, then Downtown’s four schools will not be rezoned for the fall. That means parents will be in the same situation they were in last year: They’ll be able to apply to the schools they want, but they will not be guaranteed a seat. Schools that receive too many applications will hold a lottery and will distribute seats randomly, without regard for geography, though all younger siblings will get in. Those who do not get into their first choice will get a seat at one of the other Lower Manhattan schools, and they will be prioritized over out-of-zone children from other parts of District 2 who apply.
The C.E.C. already tried to decide the zoning issue once before, at a meeting Jan. 13, but they failed to endorse an option. The C.E.C. voted 5-4 in favor of Option 2, but neither Option 2 nor Option 3R received the six votes necessary to enact them.
That will not happen at the Jan. 27 meeting, C.E.C. President T. Elzora Cleveland promised last week.
“The C.E.C. will definitely have a decision on Jan. 27,” Cleveland said last Thursday.
One member of the C.E.C., Diana Florence, was missing on Jan. 13. Her vote on Jan. 27 could either put Option 2 over the top or tie the vote at 5-5. Florence declined to comment on her position.
Cleveland, who supported Option 2, said she knew Florence’s position but did not want to disclose it. When pressed, Cleveland said, “I am confident that one of the resolutions will pass.”
Cleveland then said she would not change her position and implied that she thought Option 2 would prevail, saying, “If need be, some members can be swung.”
Including Florence, the C.E.C. has 10 members, which is one short of the standard 11. The C.E.C. plans to induct a new member on Jan. 27 to round out its ranks, but Cleveland said it would be unfair to expect the new member to vote on the rezoning, which is complicated and controversial. She said the new member, who will be a parent of an English language learner, would not be admitted to the C.E.C. until after the zoning vote.
While the C.E.C. plans to make a decision on the rezoning, some parents are rooting for a lottery instead.
“Absurdly, a lottery is our only chance at P.S. 234,” said Andy Fenwick, who lives in Barclay Tower.
Under Option 2, Fenwick’s 5-year-old daughter would be zoned for the Spruce Street School, and under 3R she would be zoned for P.S. 89. Fenwick prefers Spruce over 89 because Spruce is closer, so he spoke in favor of Option 2 Tuesday night. But he also isn’t far from P.S. 234, and he said he would prefer a lottery over Option 3R.
The Community Education Council plans to vote on one of the options on Jan. 27, at 6:30 p.m. at 333 Seventh Ave. (near 28th St.), seventh floor.