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Message to City Council: City should build schools, not jails

The fight to turn a shuttered Brooklyn jail into a school isn’t over yet. The Brooklyn House of Detention is one of several projects the city could jettison in favor of increasing its school building budget by nearly half, according to a group of school construction advocates who are holding a press conference on the subject today.

The advocates, who include Comptroller William Thompson and City Council member David Yassky, are urging the city to redirect the funds it is planning to use for prisons and police training into building more schools. They will hold a press conference this morning at 1 Centre Street, the city’s main administrative building.

Critics of the city’s proposed 5-year school construction plan say it would barely make a dent in overcrowding and wouldn’t help schools reduce their class sizes. But by moving funds from other places in its capital budget, especially from its planned spending on new jails, the city could afford to double the number of new school seats it builds in the coming years, they say.

The press conference is meant to alert council members that they can push for changes as they debate whether to approve the city’s budgets, which must happen by the end of the month. “We’re saying to council members that they have an opportunity to strike this jail plan from the budget,” said Jamie Evans-Butler, who runs a group that opposes the Brooklyn jail plan, Stop BHOD.

Reopening the Brooklyn jail, building a new one in the Bronx, and replacing trailers that are currently used to house prisoners at some detention facilities, will cost the city nearly $1 billion.

The new jails are part of a city plan to disperse inmates across the five boroughs to bring them closer to their families and the social service providers that can help them. But residents of the neighborhoods that are slated to get new jails have said they don’t want them, and school construction advocates say schools don’t yet offer humane conditions, such as small classes and the elimination of trailers as classrooms.

“Our kids should come first,” said Leonie Haimson, the head of Class Size Matters, one of the press conference’s sponsors along with Stop BHOD. “I believe in humane treatment for prisoners but that sounds like kind of lame reason to me” for the city not to build new schools, she said.

Haimson said the city could free up even more money if it canceled its plan to build a 30-acre campus for the Police Academy at a time when few new police officers are being selected. It’s estimated that the project will cost the city $883 million. Because the state is required to match any money the city uses to build schools, canceling the new jails and the Policy Academy campus could net the city $3.5 billion in school construction funding, she said.

Reopening the Brooklyn House of Detention has been under debate for years. Thompson asked the city last fall to turn the jail into school space, but the city said it would start moving inmates into the space imminently. Yassky and Thompson sued the city to stop that from happening, and after a judge ruled against them, Thompson delayed the reopening by rejecting the city’s contract with an architect who would rehab the space.