Volume 20, Number 45 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 3 - 9, 2010
Our schools downtown: Racing against time
BY Tricia Joyce
When asked to write this op-ed on our school situation post 9/11 in Lower Manhattan, I took a step back to look upon the neighborhood I moved to 20 years ago September and thought, “how could this happen here?”
After all, the entire world was watching us. Federal, state and city organizations jumped to our aid. The city broadcasted their plans of relief and rebuilding, and the spirit of the people who stayed was extraordinarily strong.
How could a city standing at this global epicenter have missed the mark so egregiously when it came to our children?
When Bloomberg promised to “revitalize” Downtown after his 2001 election, he began by dealing out large tax breaks to developers, Liberty Bond financing for as-of-right building, signing permits on the construction of over 13,500 new homes south of Canal - but stunningly, without planning any new schools along with it. The administration claimed that data compiled by the Grier partnership, a husband and wife team from Bethesda, Maryland that the city hired to run population projections for the N.Y.C. Department of Education, refuted any need for new schools here.
In fact, the Grier’s predicted the growth in ten years to be what actually happened in one, casting a fatal blow to what could have been proper planning of badly needed and timely infrastructure. Time, as it turns out, we couldn’t get back.
By 2003, additional classrooms were already being added to absorb the demand at P.S. 234; their coveted Pre-K dissolved under the pressure shortly thereafter, and a warning bell was sounded from then-principal Sandy Bridges. Elected officials such as then Councilmember Alan Gerson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were alerted and together with Community Board 1, went to work. In 2004, after finally convincing the D.O.E. and the Bloomberg administration that their projections were faulty and Downtown was exploding with children, Alan Gerson helped broker a deal with the city on their sale of site 5B and 5C at 200 Chambers St and 270 Greenwich Street. The city promised, if the community approved the planned residential developments on those sites, that they would build a 10,000 square foot annex to P.S. 234 across the dog run from the school as well as a new K-8 school east of Broadway, south of the Brooklyn Bridge, to help alleviate overcrowding at P.S. 234 (sadly the size of the school was not discussed).
The deal went forward and the work of citing the school began. Then, in early 2005 a site Governor Pataki’s wife had originally slated for a Women’s Museum, at the base of Battery Park City, was presented by C.B. 1 as a location that could instead be used for a school. The idea was met with considerable resistance by the city, and only with the help of Sheldon Silver did it get done. But it was three years late and the neighborhood was then faced with the long road to get these two schools built - six and five years, respectively.
The wave of children was coming ashore, and in 2006 the annex construction had stalled. The mayor claimed that the state was holding up their share of the funding, an argument regularly used by the administration when delays in school construction appear, and he publicly stated that he was canceling both projects as a result. Public outrage and pressure from our elected officials ensued, and the money appeared months later, and the projects were back on track. The doors of the annex finally opened in September of 2007, just in time for the 143 students who would not have fit in the main building, to sit in their chairs.
In March of 2008, there was yet another delay in the Beekman school project, (the school sited east of Broadway), this time over developer Forest City Ratner’s finances. Several months and a 30 year tax abatement later, the project was back online, but another school year behind as a result. Sheldon Silver formed a School Overcrowding Task Force comprised of downtown parents and community leaders, while P.S. 234 formed an overcrowding committee. Based on projections done by Eric Greenleaf, an NYU professor, data was released that this was only the beginning; we were expecting hundreds more children, potentially close to a thousand, in 5 short years with birth rates at 824 in 2007, up from 565 in 2003. With roughly 55% of children attending public schools, one can easily do the math.
Unprecedented 2008 registration numbers showed that Greenleaf’s predictions were coming true. P.S. 234 was now poised to lose its art and science rooms. Through the generosity of Manhattan Youth director Bob Townley, Speaker Silver worked with the D.O.E. to lease three rooms from Townley’s long awaited Community Center on Warren Street at the last minute, and converted them over the summer, again, just in time.
As fast as all of our elected officials, C.B. 1 and overcrowding committees could work - and it should be noted that P.S. 89’s P.T.A. was also very involved and in dire straights at this point as well, with a smaller school and their class sizes rising rapidly - the effects of the growth were outpacing the activism. When it became clear that the two new schools, then known as the Spruce St School, and P.S. 276, the “Green School” were not going to open in time for the expected throngs the following year, Sheldon Silver’s Task Force ramped up the pressure in December, enlisting the press, re-presenting data, potential new school locations and incubator options. Only under this pressure did the administration finally offer up 6 classrooms at the D.O.E. occupied Tweed courthouse to incubate 3 classrooms each for the new schools. Again, the rooms were converted over the summer. Which kindergartners would go there would be determined by a lottery because of the lack of new zoning for the schools, creating sometimes heated discussions between neighbors, especially new parents who had no history, only expensive leases, mortgages and high anxiety. (Thankfully most didn’t know that they stood a considerable chance of being sent out of the community district altogether had the rooms not been secured.)
Finally this past winter, with P.S. 276 to open in the fall, the D.O.E. decided it was time to lay temporary zone lines. The Community Education Council, parent volunteers whose responsibility it is to zone, has to rely on data presented by the D.O.E., but has yet to receive it. Instead, the D.O.E., in a stunning turn, decided to take the previous year’s kindergarten and first grade registration, and use those numbers and locations to lay zoning lines for the following fall, as if families had children yearly. This set forth one of the most divisive and ultimately unproductive times in our community history. With the data obviously flawed, the arguments turned to safety, proximity to the schools and length of residence, setting off tremendous in-fighting.. Members of Community Board 1 and CEC were personally attacked, when they were the volunteers that helped enable the schools to be built in the first place. In the end, the process failed, because it was destined to fail. Without proper data, and with not enough seats to accommodate the incoming students, waitlists once again prevailed. Some families moved or turned to private schools, as waitlists can extend until weeks into the school year, in effect daring people to stay on them. 234 principal Lisa Ripperger performed a last minute coup by somehow adding a kindergarten class without sacrificing any of her cluster rooms, and 25 children were immediately taken off the list boosting morale for those that stuck it out.
Elizabeth Rose from the D.O.E. sat at the Silver Task Force meeting at the end of the summer and said she was pleased to report that everyone had a seat this fall and that all was well. What she didn’t say is that in addition to the added K at 234, both Spruce St school and P.S. 276 have an extra K and first grade class – one more than their new buildings are designed to have, right from the start – so as the school grows out, they will either have to somehow drop that class or endanger the survival of their middle schools and/or cluster rooms.
And back at P.S. 234, where hope was to start bringing the school back to its capacity of 585 with the news schools opening – they instead reverted back the other way; a whopping 840 at this writing, well over capacity as it hangs onto its annexes and community center room appendages, taxing it’s common spaces to their core. Understanding at last the seriousness of the situation, The D.O.E. has finally agreed to secure another 400 seats for a K-5 school, (three years after our warning, more since they signed the building permits).
The Peck Slip Post office is under consideration. But at a capacity of 400, it will only provide for 2 classes per grade, not large enough for the oncoming children. And it will probably take at least three years to build.
So all is not exactly well. Playing catch up could take over a decade; more than the lifetime of a child’s K-5 education certainly. This neighborhood’s growth, an astonishing 85 percent from 2001 through the building planned by 2013, was not a surprise to the city; in fact it’s what they said they wanted. One could easily think that what they wanted is their tax dollars, likely in the billions by now, but not their children. How else could one explain this gigantic misstep?
As with all disasters, one can only hope that something positive comes from it. Perhaps the D.O.E. will enlist more dependable planning methods going forward; building schools concurrent with construction, the whole point of their “Capital Plans”. Perhaps we will be forced to address our land use zoning laws, school construction codes so there will be more options for places to build those schools, and keep class sizes to the state mandated, though rarely obliged by, 20-21 in K-3, 23 in grades 4-8 and 25 in high school core classes. One can only hope for some lasting change, as we brace ourselves for the next wave.
The Gehry building is soon to welcome its 903 new tenants as their construction nears completion. I wonder if anyone has told them that the new school in their building is already full.
Tricia Joyce is a P.S. 234 parent and serves on Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Task Force for Education, Community Board 1 and the P.S. 234 Overcrowding committee.