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City Council's hearing on co-locations airs persistent concerns

Persistent concerns about school space-sharing got a fresh airing today at a City Council hearing about the Department of Education’s approach to co-locations.

The process by which multiple schools are placed in a shared building is at times controversial, most frequently when the department has proposed moving a privately managed charter school into an existing school’s building. It is also a cornerstone of the city’s efforts to expand school choice by opening hundreds of small schools.

Who decides where and when schools should share space could prove to be a litmus test for Democratic mayoral candidates, but so far, likely candidates have been hesitant to say where they stand. At a policy breakfast earlier this week, three of the candidates said they would consider giving district parent councils more of a decision-making role in school closures, openings, and colocations, but none said specifically that he would want the councils to be able to veto city plans.

Several State Assemblymen recently proposed a bill that would endow the councils with veto power. Separately, City Councilman Al Vann is drafting a city resolution that would call on the state legislators to amend the city’s school governance law to give the parent councils the ability to vote on both co-locations and school closure decisions.

At today’s City Council hearing, Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson argued that co-locations disrupt learning and exacerbate unequal distributions of resources.

“Problems can arise such as overcrowding, unsafe hallways, inadequate resources, friction over shared space, and a climate of mistrust and conflict,” Jackson said in his testimony. “Schools have to compete for use of common areas such as cafeterias, gyms, auditoriums, playgrounds and hallways. Scheduling becomes a nightmare.”

Jackson and several other city council members enumerated challenges at a handful of city schools where teachers and families have complained recently of colocation woes — among them the Spring Creek School, Brooklyn Community Arts and Media School, and P.S. 9. But Deputy Schools Chancellor Marc Sternberg and other Department of Education officials said that conflicts, when they exist, quickly fade away.

More than half of city schools — over 800 in total — share space with other schools, Sternberg said, but “we’ve talked today about just a half dozen. Regardless of the configuration of the school, when the adults show up to do school, the noise goes away.”

In response to the charge that colocated schools are squeezed for space, Sternberg referred councilmembers to the Blue Book, the city’s directory of building utilization data, and added, “Every school gets its fair share of space.”

And when Councilwoman Margaret Chin raised concerns about tension between school leaders at the Henry Street campus, which is preparing for Manhattan Charter School II to move in, Sternberg said, “We trust [all principals] to manage their schools, buildings and partnerships to put students first.”

Leo Casey, the teachers union vice president for high schools, was among the advocates and Community Education Council members who submitted testimony criticizing the current colocation process. In an interview, he told GothamSchools that he would like to see the city adopt a more judicious review process before proposing a colocation.

“Right now they throw the principals into untenable situations and then say it’s their responsibilities to make the best of it,” he said. “There clearly is another way to do it. We have great campuses in New York City. Julia Richman Schools includes three regular high schools, one transfer school, an elementary school, a D75 special needs program, and they all benefit from each other’s presence.”

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