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Siting process for Lower East Side charter co-location draws ire

Confusion over where a new elementary charter school was supposed to be sited on the Lower East Side — and the co-location plan that ultimately emerged — has prompted widespread opposition from the community.

Up until four months ago, Manhattan Charter School II was bound for private space in District 1 — or at least that’s what its founders were hoping for and told local elected officials. But after those plans fell through, the Department of Education moved quickly to offer up public space in a Henry Street building that already housed three middle schools and a high school.

Now that plan is under attack by teachers and administrators at the schools, as well as the elected officials who originally were under the impression that there would be no co-location.

City Councilwoman Margaret Chin said she initially supported the school’s opening, and even helped connect the school to a couple of viable private facility options last year. MCS II was hoping to lease a building owned by the Archdiocese of New York, but lost out on its bid.

Chin said she felt deceived by the charter school after reading its original charter application for the first time in recent days. In the application, she discovered that the school  “seeks to be located in public school space” in District 1.

“I was shocked when I read it,” Chin said. “When they came to ask for help, they said they were looking for private sites only. I’m just very disappointed to find out that they intentionally, all along, were looking for public space.”

Two congresswomen, two state legislators, and a colleague in the City Council joined Chin in writing a letter requesting the DOE to withdraw the plan.

Chin said she suspected the school had purposely mislead neighborhood officials in order to avoid controversy that often accompanies charter school co-location plans.

That’s not at all the case, said Stephanie Mauterstock, director of the first Manhattan Charter School. Mauterstock said that although the group’s original intent was in fact to operate in public space, it scrapped those plans when the city said free space was not available. Instead, the school’s founders partnered with the charter school real estate developer Civic Builders to find space. It was only after its bid to open in the Archdiocese building, Our Lady of Sorrow, fell through that the DOE presented the co-location option to them.

“We were desperately looking for affordable private space in District 1,” Mauterstock said. “It was disappointing to us that it did not work out. ”

It’s at least the second time this year that the Portfolio and Planning Office, which makes decisions about school siting, has made last-minute adjustments to accomodate a new charter school. In a much higher-profile co-location plan, Eva Moskowitz’s Cobble Hill Success Academy was originally slated for District 13 in Brooklyn. But those plans changed last fall because the city said there wasn’t enough space in the district and now the school is set to open in a more affluent area nearby. Critics charge that the switch was pushed by Moskowitz as part of her strategy to open schools in middle-class neighborhoods.

According to the Department of Education’s building plan, the Lower East Side building’s current student population uses just 54 percent of the maximum capacity of 1,445 students. Even after MCS II reaches full capacity, the school would still be no more than 80 percent filled, the department argues.

But teachers and administrators who work in the building said that is not the reality. Each of the existing schools — University Neighborhood Middle School, CASTLE Middle School and Henry Street School for International Studies, a secondary school — serves large populations of students with special needs. Additional space for pull-out services in the building are required that don’t necessarily show up on the DOE building utilization plan, the teachers said Thursday night at a public hearing on the co-location.

About 150 people, most of them students and staff at the existing schools, attended the hearing, and more than 40 people signed up to speak.

Henry Street School Principal Erin McMahon attempted to illustrate the potential overcrowding issues by using panel members as props. She asked each member to stand, then shuffled them down the conference table and gradually added more people from the audience to the table. By the end of the exercise, about 15 people awkwardly stood shoulder to shoulder.

“The people sitting up there don’t realize that every time you compress space in a school, it becomes more and more uncomfortable,” McMahon said afterward. “I wanted them to see and feel what it was like.”

The Panel for Educational Policy is set to vote on the co-location plan March 21 at Manhattan’s High School of Fashion Industries.

The letter from elected officials to the city about the co-location plan is below.