Downtown’s public school problem Investigation

| 23 May 2016 | 12:29

Say you move into a new apartment building in lower Manhattan with your young family, joining a flood of residents to hit the area in the years since 9/11. You pay your taxes, you eat at the local restaurants, and, when the time comes, you sign your kid up for the neighborhood elementary school.

And, more likely than not, you learn that you’re out of luck.

Lower Manhattan -- for all its success in rebuilding and rebranding itself as a destination for families -- is among the most-strappped neighborhoods in the city when it comes to public schools. An apartment building boom in the area has not been matched by a similar increase in elementary schools, creating a severe shortage just at the time the neighborhood is growing the fastest.

“They say ‘You know what, we’re going to put you on a waiting list in March,’” said Tricia Joyce, Education Chair for Community Board 1. “There will be some parents who can’t stand it, because they’re not willing to play roulette with their child’s education and they will just up and leave.”

Lower Manhattan’s dubious distinctions, when it comes to education, include having the borough’s most-crowded school: P.S. 150, the Tribeca Learning Center, on the corner of Greenwich and Jay streets. According to reports by the city Department of Education, the school is currently operating at 148% of its capacity, meaning it is housing nearly 50 percent more students that it is designed for.

To bring Tribca Learning and the 57 other overcrowded Manhattan students down to 100% utilization, the DOE would need to add 4,713 seats. Yet only 3,882 have been funded in the most recent DOE capital plan, according to data compiled by Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for smaller class sizes.

The problem is particularly acute downtown, where three concurrent issues have exacerbated the gap between need and reality in New York City’s public schools: a planning problem, a flawed system of need estimation, and a lack of funding.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, former mayors Rudy Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg set out to revitalize lower Manhattan. Very quickly, more than 20,000 new apartments had been planned and built with no accompanying infrastructure - no school seats, little recreation space, few public gathering spots.

“What we found was that when the city plans development like this, the infrastructure is not planned concurrently,” Joyce said. “We don’t even have libraries at many of our schools in the city, Out of our nine schools downtown, only three have regulation-sized gyms.”

By the time the D.O.E. recognizes the need for a new school, it then has to go through the process of funding it, a maze that includes a review board, which puts it into a five-year capital plan, which itself can take a decade to complete.

Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents lower Manhattan and sits on the Lower Manhattan School Overcrowding Task Force, celebrated a recent small victory with the finalization of a new elementary school location at the site of the former Syms Department Store, at 42 Trinity Place. Her communications director, Paul Leonard, said her office is constantly pushing for more schools to be built downtown.

Since 2009, three other elementary schools have opened in Lower Manhattan: the Spruce Street School and Public School 276, in Battery Park City (both opened in 2009), and the Peck Slip School, which was incubated in a makeshift school in the Tweed Courthouse for three years before opening its building last fall.

Before these schools could even open their doors, however, their seats were filled, and a new school was already needed.

Funds for the new school were allocated in 2013 by the DOE, but it wasn’t until January of this year that the Syms School was sited. It will likely be five to six more years before it opens, making it nearly inevitable that demand will overwhelm it, too.

Eric Greenleaf is an NYU professor involved in forecasting school enrollments in Manhattan to help relieve school overcrowding and successfully make the case for new schools.

“Downtown Manhattan has more new apartment construction and conversion than any other part of the city,” Greenleaf said.

The Syms School will likely not solve the problem, and Greenleaf believes that in order to try to stay ahead of expansion, additional school development and planning need to begin now.

While a commercial development project can go up in a year, the Department of Education cannot keep pace, and potential sites are becoming increasingly limited. “It would be a shame to see a community that can’t grow because there is simply no other place to put a school,” said Greenleaf. “The DOE needs to start searching for future sites now.”

According to state goals passed in 2007, class sizes in New York should be limited to no more than 20 students in K-3, 23 in grades 4-8, and 25 in high school. According to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters and the DOE’s own data, more than half of students are in overcrowded schools across the city. “It’s common to see 31 children in a first grade class at P.S. 276 (Battery Park City School),” said Joyce.

The only official legal regulatory measure in place regarding class sizes come from the United Federation of Teachers union, which places contractual limits on class sizes at 25 students for Kindergarten, 32 in grades 1-6, 33 in middle school, and 34 in high school.

According to Haimson, these limits are significantly above the goals intended to provide children with a quality education, have not been lowered in 50 years and are regularly violated. “There were over 5,000 contractual violations in New York City last fall,” Haimson said.

Many of these violations come down to a flawed system of need estimation that leads to schools being forced to take on more students than they were designed for.

According to Greenleaf, whose educational needs projections have been touted as more accurate than the D.O.E.’s, the city uses a CEQR (City Environmental Quality Review) standard to determine need. Manhattan’s ratio is .12, meaning that for every 100 new apartments, 12 elementary school seats are needed. For many neighborhoods where the number of new kids is booming, this is simply not enough.

Other experts note that while in some cases, the DOE seems to technically meet the numbers thresheld, other parts of the learning experience suffer. “When some of the rooms we consider essential - like a principal’s office or a library - are lost and turned into ‘classrooms,’ the ‘capacity’ of your school increases,” said Shino Tanikawa, president of Community Education Council 2. “So losing facilities leads to even more overcrowding.”

When another school absorbs a waitlist, or schools take on more students than they were designed to handle, the DOE responds that the overcrowding issue has been reduced. Yet this is really only because of the willingness of the schools to overcrowd, partially due to the increased per-pupil funding schools receive by taking on additional students.

Of the 83,000 seats the DOE has determined the city needs over the next five years, the department’s recently released “revised” capital plan reveals that only 59%, or 49,000, of the new seats will be funded by 2020. Funding to public schools was cut citywide during the fiscal crisis of 2008 and 2009, and has yet to be reinstated. Tricia Joyce says that more than $900,000 was cut from her child’s lower Manhattan school alone.

In addition to city funding, state funding allocated specifically for the reduction of class size in the Contracts For Excellence/Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) resolution of 2007 was frozen as a result of the financial crisis, and has yet to be reinstated.

“We are owed over $2 billion in CFE funding,” said Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education. “Imagine what our children could have.”

Perhaps most startling remains the fact that the city intends to fund only half of its own determined need, which is thought by many to be underestimated altogether.

“They say it’s budget,” Joyce said. “But my question, which has gone unanswered, is that when you build what is now over 30,000 homes in lower Manhattan since 9/11 for an average selling price of $1.5 million, the tax money that is generated and the influx it provided to the city of New York we estimate to be in the tens of billions of dollars. What happened to that money, and why was it not properly allocated to infrastructure? Even a tiny percentage would have been more than enough to provide for our schools and for our children.”