By Betsy Scheinbart
Borough President Claire Shulman delivered her last State of the Borough address Tuesday at Queens Theatre in the Park, vowing to keep public education her highest priority in the borough with the city’s most crowded schools.
Shulman, who will be forced to give up her post next year by the city’s term limit law, welcomed nearly 500 people who represented the Who’s Who of Queens, including Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), several city council members, and heads of major city departments.
“We have more than a quarter of a million students, almost 20,000 teachers and 458 school buildings in Queens,” Shulman said. “Despite our size, we are still minus 28,000 seats.”
Nevertheless, the borough president said progress had been made in the quest to expand school space in Queens, which has fewer desks for its students than any other borough.
“This year Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani announced an accelerated program to build 12 more schools — 11 of them in Queens,” Shulman declared to thunderous applause.
While she spoke, slides projected on a giant screen behind her showed the crowded conditions of Queens schools.
Shulman triumphantly announced that the new Queens Hospital Center will open this year and also revealed plans to expand health care coverage in the Rockaways and praised the success of Flushing and Jamaica hospitals.
“Perhaps the most essential resource we improved this year is our health care system,” she said.
In her 15th State of the Borough address, Shulman recounted the development of several new programs for seniors, including shelters, community centers, and transport vans.
Commenting on the borough’s robust economy, Shulman said unemployment in Queens dropped to 4.1 percent in December – “the lowest rate in more than a decade and the lowest of any of the boroughs,” she said. “New businesses continued to take advantage of this climate.”
The borough leader also mentioned several new development projects, including the recent ground-breaking for a movie theater complex in Jamaica.
Advancements in the borough’s transportation system have supported the economic boom, Shulman continued, pointing to the Airtrain project, a light-rail system linking the Long Island Rail Road to John F. Kennedy International Airport. She said the train should be in service by 2003
Shulman also discussed the current state of the Queens airports, voicing her concern over airport noise and congestion at LaGuardia, where a new federal law paved the way for scores of additional flights.
“We are fighting to get a reasonable schedule of flights and perhaps the lottery that takes effect tomorrow (Jan. 31) will relieve air traffic congestion,” she said.
The Federal Aviation Administration is introducing a lottery to cut back on the number of flights at LaGuardia, which was responsible for nearly 25 percent of all delayed flights in the nation late last year.
“Meanwhile, the mayor and I have started a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation because no environmental review was done” before the approval of new regional flights, she said.
The development of the East River waterfront and a plan to establish New York’s fourth central business district in Long Island City are also among her plans for western Queens in 2001.
Another waterfront development project is under way along Flushing Bay near Shea Stadium, where a two-mile promenade will open later this year.
Nearby in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Shulman has joined Giuliani and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) in funding a new $30 million, year-round, Olympic-size swimming pool and ice-skating rink.
Meanwhile, Shulman said she remains dedicated to the environment and improving air quality, a factor associated with the increase in asthma and other respiratory illnesses in the borough.
In citing a drop in crime of 9.2 percent, more than double that of the other four boroughs, Shulman applauded the efforts of Queens police precincts.
Fire deaths decreased last year in the borough and she attributed the decline to the Fire Department of New York, which achieved its goal of responding to fires in less than five minutes.
Shulman concluded her address by praising the growth of artistic and diverse cultural events in Queens, citing the recent Lunar New Year celebration in Flushing, the Hispanic Heritage celebration at Theatre in the Park, the eighth annual gay and lesbian pride parade in Jackson Heights, and the recent Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
The morning’s program concluded with a surprise presentation by several public school students. Three high school students gave Shulman a bouquet of flowers. This was followed by poignant stories from Thomas Medina from the Academy of American Studies, Lynn-Marie Joseph from John Bowne HS, and Rio May Del Rosa of Townsend Harris, with each recounting how Shulman helped their high schools.
Finally, the PS 230 chorus performed a moving rendition of “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” turning toward Shulman as they sang the refrain: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero.” They also sang “God Bless America.”
Shulman, visibly moved by the performance, said “no one has ever sang to me quite like that. I am overwhelmed.”
Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.