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Klein talks overcrowding, turnaround strategies in Queens

Even with new school buildings and thousands of new seats, overcrowding has not abated in Queens schools, city council members complained last night.

At a cabinet meeting of the Queen borough president, where Chancellor Klein dropped by to give a back-to-school update, council members said that the city is only using a tiny fraction of the roughly 4,000 new seats. Meanwhile, some nearby schools are bursting at the seams, they said.

Klein’s questioners included Council members Karen Koslowitz, Danny Dromm, Mark Weprin, and Jimmy Van Bramer, some of whom ran for office as skeptics of the chancellor’s policies.

Koslowitz said that while the new Metropolitan Avenue campus has about 2,000 seats, only about 400 students are currently enrolled. Meanwhile, the nearby Forest Hills High School has nearly twice as many students as it was intended to serve, she said.

As is common practice, the two new schools located in the Metropolitan Avenue building are opening with a few hundreds students in only one or two grades. Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning is opening with grades six and seven, while the Queens Metropolitan High School only has a ninth grade this year. Each year, the schools will add more students and grades until the building reaches capacity.

Klein said that he’d wanted to reduce Forest Hills High School’s enrollment this year by bringing more students to the Metropolitan campus. But, he said,”groups working in the schools,” had objected to the idea on the grounds that slimming down Forest Hills — thereby cutting its budget — while flooding the Metropolitan schools with more students than new schools typically take on would create chaos.

“They’re a little afraid that if you take a lot of kids out of Forest Hills all at once, you’re going to actually make the problem worse by doing two things at one time,” he said.

Klein also tried to explain why some of the eleven schools undergoing the federal government’s “transformation” model, such as Flushing High School, have an unusual leadership structure. Four of the schools have both a new principal and a “mentor principal” — in most cases, this is the school’s previous principal — meaning that the schools’ already-cut budgets have to cover an additional administrative salary.

The chancellor said the expense was worth it in order to get the federal turnaround grant, which required the city to remove the principals. But because the principals’ union fought total removal, the city had agreed to the mentor position, Klein said.

“To lose a veteran principal, when you’re getting $2 million and the cost of the salary is $140,000, we thought was a mistake,” he said. “And we were being threatened by the principals’ union that they would block the removals. I understand the duplication looks a little weird.”