Meeting for new high school stymied by community unrest

By Tom Momberg

U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and state Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside) wrote a letter to the head of the School Construction Authority Tuesday, asking that the agency rescind its contract with the Bayside Jewish Center, citing the many problems building a school at the location may pose.

This action came after word got out about a private meeting Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) had scheduled with the city Department of Education and SCA, Community Board 11, nearby high school principals and a few community stakeholders about the plans to build a new 730-seat high school at the Bayside Jewish Center site.

As the Monday meeting at PS 159 approached, fliers circulated in area schools to get educators, parents and neighbors to protest outside the meeting. Sure enough, because the SCA finalized a controversial purchase agreement with the Jewish center a couple months ago, at least four dozen extra people showed up to express their disappointment, many of them carrying signs.

The meeting was called so the DOE, SCA and CB11 could discuss the possible programs or specialty schools that could be built at the site, prior to the two upcoming public meetings.

But because those who came to rally were ultimately let into the meeting, any progress was stymied by community frustration, as each newcomer tried to put in his or her own two cents about how the site is inappropriate for a school.

The 45-day public review period for the proposed school began last week—along with a traffic study and environmental review process—and is required before the SCA closes on the purchase of the one-acre Bayside Jewish Center site.

“Tonight was the start of a second process: the community engagement process,” SCA Chief of Staff Melonie La Rocca said. “We are here to hear back from the community about what type of school it is the community is looking for.

Vallone gave an ultimatum which he said is completely out of his control: Neighbors can be involved and help pick both a specialty program that fits in with the community’s needs, as well as a building that is characteristically in line with the surrounding neighborhood. Or, he said, neighbors can fight it, the community board can vote it down and the city can go through with the project anyway, without any community input.

“There are folks that will just never ever embrace that,” Vallone said. “To not have a discussion about this just wastes everybody’s time. But to have a discussion as to what may happen for the future of generations beyond us, I certainly want to have that discussion. Just because some people don’t want it, doesn’t mean I’m not going to talk about all the possibilities. Because otherwise, we are just going to walk away with nothing.”

The day following the heated meeting, Meng and Braunstein sent their letter to SCA President and CEO Lorraine Grillo, backing up the community’s concerns about the site.

“A more rational siting policy would have taken this opposition into consideration before the SCA entered into contract with the Bayside Jewish Center,” the letter said.

Vallone said it may be too late to hault the planning for a new school at the site, but following the meeting, had, like state Sen. Tony Avella had on the state level, drafted city legislation to reform that site selction process.

The first bill Vallone has proposed would require the SCA to submit annual reports to the City Council that list by borough, potential school sites the SCA has reviewed and deemed ineligible for a school. The seconf would require the SCA to allow residents to suggest potential school sites through the city agency’s website.

The two upcoming public meetings about the proposed high school are CB11’s Education Cmmittee meeting Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children, 29-01 216th St., and CB11’s regular monthly meeting Monday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 p.m. at Marie Curie Middle School, 46-35 Oceania St.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.