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Could the DOE’s conservative capital plan be selling the city short?

With billions of dollars in federal support for school construction projects on the horizon, New York City is shortsighted to undersell its need for new schools, teachers union president Randi Weingarten said at yesterday’s City Council hearing about the city’s proposed capital plan.

President-elect Obama’s top aide confirmed yesterday that school construction projects will be part of the new administration’s stimulus package to create jobs and encourage spending by states, according to Alyson Klein of Education Week. Governors, who are staring at massive budget shortfalls, this week asked Obama for $130 billion to support infrastructure projects, including schools.

What’s so special about school construction? In contrast with some other infrastructure projects, states are always planning to build or enhance schools, so they can get to work on those projects in a relatively short amount of time. Plus, many believe that capital investments in schools can pay off in improved educational quality.

But the city doesn’t have a robust school building agenda right now. This is “absolutely the wrong way to go in this situation” because it could result in the city’s schools being shut out of a federal stimulus package, Weingarten said yesterday.

“If this [federal] money is out there, and we don’t have a plan, we won’t be in the queue,” she said.

The proposed capital plan is based on the School Construction Authority’s assertion that the city needs just 25,000 new school seats. That’s just 15 percent of the 167,000 seats that the Campaign for A Better Capital Plan says are needed if the city wants to eliminate overcrowding and bring class sizes down to the level required by the state.

Plus, citing the weakening economy, the SCA is asking for only $11.3 billion over the next five years, nearly $2 billion less called for in the current plan.

The proposed capital plan reflects the mayor’s more general myopia toward creating jobs and maintaining city services during the recession, council members said yesterday. Mayor Bloomberg earlier this year mandated that all city agencies, including the School Construction Authority, revise down their capital budgets by 20 percent.

“I don’t understand why President-elect Obama and others are talking about increasing capital spending and our mayor is talking about cutting it,” council member Lew Fidler said, his voice rising. “It’s so counter-productive to our economy that it sickens me!”