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City Council seeks more say in planning school construction

With the Bloomberg administration’s proposed capital-spending budget for schools up for the City Council’s consideration, lawmakers are taking a novel approach: Rather than vote yes or no, they are asking for a change in state law that would give them more power to revise it.

The change could not actually be marshaled through Albany in time for this year’s capital budget, but it does send a signal that city lawmakers are interested in conducting more oversight over the public schools.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the council aims to have the same kind of input into the city’s school capital budget as it has in the Department of Education’s operating budget. Each spring, the council negotiates changes in that budget. Sometimes, those changes are substantial, such as last year, when the council won the restoration of $129 million in school funds.

But on school construction, the council must vote simply yes or no on a plan that contains hundreds of individual projects. The plan has been a popular target for advocates who have said it doesn’t come close to meeting the city’s need for more school buildings. It has also made an attractive target for elected officials, especially in Manhattan, where parents have been strenuously protesting school crowding.

The council’s wish list for Albany includes getting the rights to review the capital plan annually, even though it is written in five-year-long blocks. The council already gets notification about annual amendments, but it doesn’t get a chance to weigh in on them, a council spokesman, Anthony Hogrebe, said.

The council also wants to be able to propose amendments of its own, such as identifying a need for school space in a neighborhood that the city has not yet recognized.

Right now, many advocates are pressuring council members to vote no on the newest proposed plan, arguing that it calls for building only a fraction of the seats that are needed to accommodate students and pull class sizes down to the city’s onw targets. A report released this week by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity encouraged New Yorkers through an associated Web site to urge council members to vote no on the building plan as it is currently proposed.