Proposed Hillcrest school spurs new try at oversight bill

By Alex Christodoulides

The legislation mirrors the process currently in place for school sites the city owns.City Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), state Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), local civic leaders and a Healthy Schools Network representative spoke across from the city-owned future site of the Gateway to Health Sciences School, adjacent to Queens Hospital Center on Goethals Avenue, to push for revival of a bill that died in the state Legislature last year.The Feb. 15 event devolved into criticizing the Republican-controlled state Senate's version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), whose seat Gennaro is rumored to be seeking in 2009.The soil at the Gateway site, formerly the Queens County morgue and a refueling lot for hospital vehicles, was found by city and independent reviews to be contaminated by toxins, including petroleum, formaldehyde and toluene. The community successfully lobbied the city last year to require a stringent environmental cleanup before agreeing to the school plan.For schools to be built on city-owned sites, “the School Construction Authority has an obligation to inform the community board and the City Council for review,” Gennaro said. “This site was reviewed by SCA and the Department of Environmental Conservation, and we and activists found all kinds of contamination. We made the environmental review more thorough, and made the site better for students, teachers and the community.”Some 31 percent of school seats due to come online in the next few years will be on leased sites, Gennaro said.”The rules are different for leased sites. Community participation: none. Community involvement: none. City Council involvement: none,” he said.State Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) last year put forth a bill that would require the same oversight for leased sites as for owned ones. Padavan was to sponsor the bill in the Senate.Lancman, a proponent of the Assembly bill that would require oversight for leased sites, said communities should get a say in the government decisions that affect them.”Gateway is here with the community's consent and approval, but the community was only given due consideration because the law allows it,” he said. “The law does not give the same consideration for sites that are leased.”Stephen Boese, a representative of Healthy Schools, an advocacy group that conducts research and educates about school site and building safety, said the rules should be the same whether the site is owned or leased.”Children are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards,” Boese said. “When parents send their children to school every day, they don't care whether the site is leased or owned.”Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at achristodoulides@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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