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A tour reignites a feud, and sheds light on Harlem space wars

Scott Stringer and Eva Moskowitz are fighting again, not over an elected office this time, but over school space.

Stringer, who defeated Moskowitz in a fierce borough presidency race in 2005, reignited the flames by taking a tour of a Harlem elementary school today. The school, P.S. 123, shares space with Harlem Success Academy 2, one of Moskowitz’s four charter schools. Charter schools are public schools that are privately operated.

Stringer’s visit, guided by P.S. 123 parents, teachers, and members of the activist group ACORN, was the latest attempt by supporters of the school to try to stop Harlem Success from expanding into its classrooms as the charter school adds a first grade. (An earlier scuffle between the two schools ended with police intervention.)

The building tour provided a rare on-the-ground view of the space wars that have accelerated as more and more school buildings house multiple schools.

Piles of furniture and boxes of supplies cluttered a third floor hallway, the detritus of Harlem Success’ move last week, P.S. 123 parents and teachers explained. School supporters also pointed to spaces they fear they will lose to the charter school, including a gym that Harlem Success has proposed splitting in half by partition so that both schools could use it at once. They said they also worry their library will be converted into a classroom.

John White, the city Department of Education’s chief portfolio officer, later told me that neither possibility is set in stone. The library will remain as it is, and will be shared by both schools, under a formal space-sharing agreement school leaders will craft, White said. And while it’s true that Harlem Success proposed splitting the gym, nothing will be settled until the principals meet and agree on a final plan, White said.

The tour made its way down to the basement, where everyone filed into a room that is used for after-school activities and GED classes and felt stuffy. The DOE has designated the room as classroom space for P.S. 123 next year, but teachers said there is little ventilation and the room easily overheats, making it unusable.

In our interview, White suggested that the school move its administrative offices there, noting that while the DOE apportions each principal a set number of classrooms, it does not tell them how to use the space.

According to White, each school was assigned a number of classrooms based on the size of its student body. In the next year, the DOE predicts that the schools will have a combined population of 950 students, with roughly 650 at P.S. 123 and 300 at the Academy. The building’s capacity is 1,034.

“This building used to have a thousand kids, and now they’re saying that there’s no space,” White said, “When parent demand changes, space usage has to change.”

But the two schools have been squabbling over how to divvy up the space for months since they first sat down to write a formal space-sharing agreement in May. Most recently, police were called to break up an argument when, without warning, Harlem Success movers began hauling boxes into additional classrooms and P.S. 123 teachers tried to stop them. Moskowitz said in a statement that the DOE had turned over the rooms to her on July 1, but the DOE says she had not been given the go-ahead to actually move into them.

The fight also led to a protest outside one of the charter school’s classrooms in which opponents changed “HSA go away,” Harlem Success officials said in a statement today.

At the end of the tour, Stringer called on the DOE to suspend HSA’s expansion until both principals had met and resolved the space issues — what he described as a “cooling out” period. Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who is also the president of the new Board of Education, denied the request in a letter today.

“The implementation of this plan has been delayed due to the adjustment process, for some time, already jeopardizing the ability of schools to re-open in August,” Walcott wrote.

Moskowitz used the tour and Stringer’s comments as an opportunity to fire back. She issued a press release calling the borough president and ACORN organizers “union hacks.” Both Stringer and ACORN are close allies of the city teachers union, whose strenuous campaigning helped Stringer defeat Moskowitz in 2005.

The press release also accused teachers at P.S. 123 of being concerned only about their teachers lounge, which will likely be converted into a classroom. Among the many concerns they listed on the tour, teachers never mentioned a lounge.

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