Tight-Fisted State Puts Brooklyn Classrooms In Jeopardy

By Michèle De Meglio

If the city does not receive $6.5 billion from Albany by April 1, plans to create additional classroom seats and new schools in Brooklyn may be abandoned. So said Brian McGinn, manager of operations and intergovernmental relations for the School Construction Authority (SCA). Speaking at a meeting of District 22’s Community Education Council (CEC), he explained that the city Department of Education (DOE) currently lacks half of the funding necessary to complete the projects outlined in its $13.1 billion capital plan for 2005-2009. Projects at 80 to 90 schools, including several in Brooklyn, are at risk of being scrapped, according to Kathleen Grimm, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for finance and administration. “It’s slightly troubling that it seems so much is hinging on this state funding,” said Christopher Spinelli, president of District 22’s CEC. The money in question rests on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision, which deemed city schools severely underfunded. A judge later ruled that local schools must receive an extra $5.6 billion in operating funds over the next four years and $9.2 billion over the next five years for capital projects. Early last year, the city had expected the CFE money to be available for projects planned for September 2005 but because of Governor George Pataki’s vigorous opposition to the ruling, the city has yet to receive all of the additional funding. (Pataki’s 2005-2006 budget only called for a $526 million increase in school funding.) Many parents and educators fear that the extra money may not arrive any time soon, as, last spring, Pataki’s appeal against the ruling was upheld. Since then, there has been no movement to release the CFE money to the city. “While Governor Pataki is running for the Iowa caucus, the children of the city are being severely shortchanged,” said Michael Benjamin, a member of District 22’s CEC. With Pataki possibly wanting to make amends with the city as he reportedly eyes a 2008 presidential run, parents are being encouraged to demand that the five boroughs receive the CFE money that the courts say they deserve. “Everybody in the city is upset that the state is not following through” with the CFE decision, McGinn said. “We implore everyone to reach out to their state officials.” To compensate for the lack of sufficient state funding in 2005 – the first year of the DOE’s five-year capital plan – Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who at the time was running for reelection, increased the city’s contribution to the plan by $1.3 billion. This allowed work to begin on projects specified for 2005. The money was an advance of the funding the city was prepared to commit during the remaining four years of the capital plan. As a result, the city will provide less over the next four years. Bloomberg will not increase the city’s contribution this year. “We can’t keep covering for the state every fiscal year because they’re going to just let us continue to do it,” McGinn said. “A line has to be drawn in the sand and it seems like this is the fiscal year to do it.” With hundreds of projects outlined in the capital plan and only half of the necessary funding now available, the city is deciding which will be axed. Using a one to five rating system, projects are greenlighted based on importance, priority, and necessity of work. A DOE spokesperson named several local projects that are on the chopping block. Long fought for, plans to create a high school in Sunset Park are now in limbo. The school was expected to maintain 1,600 seats, thereby alleviating overcrowding at existing neighborhood high schools, including Fort Hamilton, James Madison and Midwood. According to DOE data, each of these three schools is at least 60 percent overcapacity. The DOE planned to create three additional schools in Brooklyn – one at East 107th Street and Avenue J and two others in the Family Court building at 283 Adams Street. The future of these projects is now up in the air. As are the DOE’s plans to convert a trio of recently-closed Catholic schools into sites for public schools. The three schools – St. Thomas Aquinas at 1501 Hendrickson Street, Our Lady of Refuge School at 1087 Ocean Avenue, and Holy Innocents School at 249 East 17th Street – were victims of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s mass closings of Catholic schools last spring. At a meeting of District 22’s CEC last November, an SCA rep revealed intentions to relocate P.S. 245, which is now sandwiched between stores at 2222 Church Avenue, to Holy Innocents in the fall. It was at this month’s CEC meeting that P.S. 245 Principal Joan Ramsey learned that the move might not happen. In spite of the news, she is hopeful that her school will have a new home come September. “I’m still thinking positive,” she said. For more than 10 years, parents have called for P.S. 245 to be moved to a larger location. At Holy Innocents, P.S. 245 would have an auditorium, gymnasium, computer lab, science labs, and a playground – all of which it presently lacks. Regardless of what happens on April 1, there is still hope for P.S. 245, as the projects that are dropped will be put back in the capital plan for consideration in 2007, a DOE spokesperson explained.

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