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In capital plan fight, a reluctance to challenge the city's proposal

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is pushing back against opposition to the city’s proposed school construction plan, saying there is no way for the council legally to vote it down.

Quinn met today with about 30 parents who lambaste the plan as too conservative and an ineffective remedy to overcrowding. The parents are urging council members to vote against the plan when it comes up for a vote, probably on Friday.

But Quinn said the city’s chief lawyer has advised her that the state law governing the city public schools does not contain provisions for what to do if the council votes the plan down.

“We have been informed by the Corporation Counsel of the City that if we were to vote no, the [Department of Education] would effectively be left with no long-term capital budget,” Quinn wrote in a letter to the parents yesterday. In that situation, school construction could grind to a standstill, she said.

The law she was referring to, Section 4 of Education Law Section 2590-p, says, “Following approval by the city board of a five-year educational facilities capital plan, the chancellor shall submit such plan to the mayor and the council of the city of New York for their approval.”

Patrick Sullivan, a parent leader who sits on a task force to tackle overcrowding in Manhattan and who is also a member of the city school board, the Panel for Educational Policy, said he thought the city could revise the plan and resubmit it to the council quickly, before the council’s June 30 deadline to set the city’s budget. “This could take place in a matter of days without much downside,” he said.

But Quinn said the revision process could drag on indefinitely in that situation. Maintenance projects that are slated to take place during the summer might not happen, and other construction projects that are in development could be shelved entirely, she said. “It’s the unknown and that to me is very, very worrisome,” she said.

Instead of voting down the plan, Quinn said the council would push for a state law to require the city to measure classroom space using the state’s class size targets. Right now, the city sometimes says schools are under capacity even when class sizes are above official state targets. The law would be on top of the one the council already said it would seek so that it can negotiate annual amendments to the school construction plan.

Quinn also said she and other council members are negotiating behind the scenes with the city for improvements to the proposed plan before it comes before the council for a vote. One improvement that she said she is pushing for would force the city to reallocate funds pegged for jails to school construction.

Leonie Haimson, an advocate for school construction who is part of the schools-not-jails push, said she thought Quinn’s reluctance to see council members vote against the plan would work against her in the back-room negotiations that are currently ongoing.

“Christine Quinn has put herself in what appears to be a weak negotiating position, but I’m hopeful that she is pressing her point as hard as she can,” Haimson said.

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