Break Ground Not Promises: Parents Demand New School

By Helen Klein

Damp but determined, parents, educational leaders and civic activists gathered on a street corner across from the former Magen David Yeshiva, at Avenue P and Stillwell Avenue, to protest the lack of funding coming from New York State for the Department of Education’s current $13.1 billion capital plan. This lack of funding that could mean that a promised new $68 million K-to-8 school at the site will not be built, despite the over $20 million already spent to purchase the property and do the demolition. Chanting, “break ground, not promises,” and holding signs which read, “A $20 million building going to waste,” and “Mayor Bloomberg, District 20 children give you great scores. Now, you must fight for our kids,” the protesters said that, with all the talk of smaller class size and higher standards, the time had come for those who control the purse strings to put their money where their mouth is. “Governor Pataki, the children of New York need you,” roared Carlo Scissura, the president of the District 20 Community Education Council (CEC). “We’re not concerned with the children in New Hampshire or Iowa, where you want to run for president. The governor is blocking billions and billions of dollars from coming to our city to build schools. I say we all send a message to the governor and let the governor know that New York City will no longer take the abuse and be kept prisoners by his political ambitions.” “My child sits in a class size of 34,” Nancy Gasparino, the president of the District 20 Presidents Council, pointed out angrily, with the half-demolished hulk of the old school building towering behind her. “I’m sick and tired of being told that smaller class size works. When does it work for my child? When does it work for this community? “Because I don’t see it in District 20,” she charged. “It’s not happening. Class size keeps going up and it’s not fair. It’s about who gets what. Well, we should be getting something in District 20, the most over-crowded district in Brooklyn, and the third most crowded district in the city. How could they leave this like this? It’s absurd.” “There is no community that would stand for what the mayor and governor are attempting to do here,” added Marvin Reiskin, the District 20 United Federation of Teachers representative. “This would be a shame that $20 million would be wasted on space that can be used in all these surrounding schools where the class size is an abomination. The governor has got to really step up to the plate, along with the mayor. When they have excesses in the budget, they have to put it where it belongs, in promises made to this community.” Scissura said that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg needed to take a lead in the fight to secure the state funding. “We need you to do more than talk,” Scissura said. “We need you to walk. We need you to take every piece of political capital you have, and go to Albany, and tell them to give the children the money. This is their future.” The site for the rally, which was held on a rainy Tuesday afternoon as January wound to its end, was chosen specifically to highlight the ironies of the situation. It also put into stark relief the frustration of the area’s educational community, who made their points as bulldozers prepared the site for construction that might not take place, because the city – which has committed $6.5 billion to the construction of new schools in all five boroughs – is still waiting for the state to put in the remainder, as part of the settlement of the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit. In that case, a New York State Supreme Court Justice had ordered the state to revamp its education funding formulas, to provide city kids with a “sound basic education.” In addition, as a result of the lawsuit, the state had been ordered to hand over to the city DOE 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, to begin making up for the years of inequity. “For many, many years, the fact that New York City schoolchildren were short-changed was a political argument,” noted City Councilmember Vincent Gentile. “Now, it’s more than a political argument. It’s a court decision. Because of the governor’s actions, we are $1.8 billion short in this year’s fiscal budget, and $1.7 billion short next year. That’s why schools like this site are not being done. “With even a portion” of the money that the judge has determined is owed to the city, said Gentile, “This school would be done tomorrow.” Nonetheless, despite a multi-billion-dollar state budget surplus, with the governor leading the charge, the state has turned a deaf ear to the city’s dire need for additional schools, and has persisted in appealing the CFE decision. “What happens if New York City never sees that money?” demanded Scissura. In that case, the governor, “Should be held in contempt of court. If I owed money on a judgment, if any of you owed money on a judgment, and we didn’t pay, we would be arrested, and that’s the bottom line.” The school is one of eight included for School District 20 in the 2005-2009 capital plan, which proposes adding more than 5,000 new classroom seats to accommodate the burgeoning student population. “It’s very, very important,” stressed Scissura, “that this district gets the money it deserves.” Should state money not be forthcoming, he said, the money available through the city must be spent carefully in accordance with priorities. “We bought this property,” Scissura said. “We demolished it. We have plans ready to go. If we are going to prioritize, then this site must be priority number one in the city of New York.” District 20 includes schools in Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Sunset Park and Boro Park.

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