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City Council’s UFT charter school support raises ire, eyebrows

People on both sides of the charter school fight are not happy about a hefty City Council earmark that’s going to the teachers union’s charter school.

The funding, sponsored by City Councilman Erik Dilan and approved last month in the council’s annual capital budget allocations, gives the union $2 million to develop a plan for moving its charter school out of the two East New York buildings it shares and into space of its own.

The announcement comes as charter schools and their critics are locked in fierce debate over how the city funds and allocates space to charter schools. That dispute is central to a lawsuit, filed in May by the UFT and NAACP, that seeks to stop 16 charter schools from opening, moving, or expanding.

The lawsuit alleges that some charter schools receive disproportionate public resources, and some of its backers say the City Council earmark is another example.

Teacher activist Norm Scott called the funding “a double outrage, maybe a triple outrage.”

“The union makes the same deal the charters are making, taking $2 million of public money, while the public schools are starving? I don’t care if it were $1, it’s the symbol,” he said. “Let them raise funds like all the other charter schools.”

State Sen. Bill Perkins said he would have preferred to see money going to traditional public schools in need.

“I would give them, especially my colleague Bob Jackson, the benefit of the doubt that there’s no conflict in that regard, but it makes one want to look into it and find out where we’re going with this,” he said. Robert Jackson is the chair of the council’s education committee and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, as are Perkins and Dilan.

Charter school advocates are also unhappy that the union’s charter school is getting help while other charter schools are struggling to hold onto space in public school buildings.

“The fact that even the UFT needs millions of scarce taxpayers dollars to move its charter school into a private building underscores why charters continue to need access to public space,” said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Of the 660 education projects funded by the City Council’s capital budget, only six payouts were over $1 million. They went to James Madison High School ($2 million), Susan Wagner High School ($1.95 million for a baseball field), PS 101 ($1.6 million), PS 65 ($1.5 million), High School for Service and Learning ($1.33 million for auditorium renovations) and Brooklyn Technical High School ($1.25 million for an auditorium).

Though the council’s budget document says the money is for “community charter school construction,” the $2 million for the UFT charter school was classified as economic development spending, not education spending.

The city’s own capital budget for schools allocates $210 million for charter school construction. So far, that money is slated to help construct space for five charter schools.

Councilwoman Letitia James said she didn’t think that the council’s allocation to a charter school was “odd at all.” Anything that eliminates the problem of co-location is worth the expense, said James, who is also a plaintiff in the UFT-NAACP lawsuit.

UFT spokesman Peter Kadushin said the money will be used for planning the potential space, which will include a community center and health clinic. Providing those wraparound services would be consistent with the union’s previous pushes for community schools.

Longtime UFT member Peter Goodman said that $2 million was just a “pittance” for the tens of millions that a full facility could cost, though it could pay for planning and perhaps some of an abandoned site in East New York.

“The only way you can get that is probably through the federal government, some federal program where they’re really providing money,” he said.