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With public help, a charter school will move out of city space

Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to move at least one charter school out of its home inside a district school building today. But the plan does not involve a change in the legal battle that the city faces over its decision to grant space to some charter schools.

Instead, the DREAM Charter School will move out of a district school building and into a new space in East Harlem that it will share with 90 new New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments.

The new building, an $85 million project that will replace a parking lot connected to the Washington Houses, is being constructed through a mix of private and public dollars.

Of the public dollars, $32.5 million will come from a Department of Education program that provides matching grants to help build facilities for charter schools, which are publicly funded but receive no direct state support for facilities expenses and are not guaranteed public space.

Another nearly $30 million will come from housing development funds.

“NYCHA properties happen to have pockets of a scarce and really valuable resource in our city: underutilized land,” Bloomberg said at a press conference today announcing the deal.

Last year, a similar project connected the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy charter school and a public housing project planned for the St. Nicholas Houses in Harlem.

The deal was criticized as political because Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has received generous donations from Bloomberg and been a booster of him.

Rich Berlin, the executive director of the program that created DREAM, Harlem RBI, said that his organization has not received any philanthropic gifts from the mayor.

Harlem RBI, a 2o-year-old program that uses baseball and softball to work with young people, created the DREAM charter school in 2008. Last year, Berlin teamed up with Yankees First Baseman Mark Teixeira, who has been raising private funds towards the school construction project.

“It’s been about a year and a half that I’ve been a part of the family, and the first thing Rich Berlin told me was ‘Oh great, Mark, welcome to Harlem RBI. We need to raise twenty million dollars,'” Teixeira said at the press conference today. He has so far raised a little over $10 million, he said.

The Department of Education will own the building when construction is complete in 2014 and will rent the space out to Harlem RBI for one dollar a year.

Announcing last year’s deal with the Harlem Children’s Zone, officials said that building on a public lot was actually more expensive than building on a private one.

Berlin said that the opposite is true in this case. “Unlike the HCZ project, our land does not have to be rezoned to be built upon, and we don’t have to work our way around anything,” Berlin said. “The cost of the land is significantly less expensive than it would be to simply buy a private parcel.”

Berlin said that he wants the residents of the Washington Houses, the public housing project that will expand by 90 apartments, to receive preference in applying to send their children to the school. “We will ask for a carve-out that allows for 50 percent of the seats to be a separate lottery for NYCHA residents in that district, with an even greater preference for Washington Houses residents,” Berlin said.

Currently, 60 percent of the charter’s students are NYCHA residents, and the majority of those students come from the Washington Houses, he said.

Speaking before the press conference, Eve Covalito, the principal of DREAM charter, said that her school is more than ready for the expansion. “It feels tight,” she said, “and it will feel tighter next year.”

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