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School space group offers path forward for de Blasio on co-locations

Jackie Schechter

Collaboration, transparency and students with disabilities are the themes of a long-awaited report from a diverse group of education experts convened to advise the de Blasio administration on how schools should share space.

The new report offers dozens of recommendations and strategies for how schools can better share space within a building. It calls for more public involvement during the planning period, suggests that schools in the same building share main offices or faculty work rooms, and says “bad neighbors” in a building should be monitored and arbiters dispatched to settle intractable disputes.

But the report is less a playbook for the de Blasio administration to use than a 13-page mission statement. And it warns that the “most urgent” school space issues — overcrowding and the presence of classroom trailers — have yet to be fully addressed. Requirements to provide facilities for new and expanding charter schools and plans to add 2,000 prekindergarten classrooms next year will further stretch the city’s capacity.

Co-locations incite some of the city’s fiercest education battles because they force schools to share auditoriums and cafeterias and divvy up the building’s classrooms and offices. Two of three city schools share space, but often the most contentious co-locations involve district and charter schools placed in the same building.

It is now the city’s decision whether to turn the group’s recommendations into system-wide regulations or simply guidelines that different schools in the same building are encouraged to follow. Even if the city does create new space-sharing rules, though, charter schools in public buildings will not necessarily be bound by them since they are exempt from most rules covering district schools.

“One of the big concerns is that charters aren’t technically obligated to follow” the recommendations, said Miriam Aristy-Farer, president of the community education council in Manhattan’s District 6 and a member of the advisory group that wrote the report, in an interview last month. “We could have all these great recommendations, but it’s up to them whether to follow them or not.”

The report suggests shorter and more concise explanations of how schools will be affected by changes, and make them available in more than just English and Spanish. It also asks that officials no longer sit silently and take notes at heated community meetings but instead respond to concerns directly.

Schools that share space should be given additional resources to coordinate schedules so that problems like extremely early and late lunch periods could be avoided, the report suggests. It also advises the city to provide examples of successful school schedules and continue to encourage schools to share Advanced Placement courses, foreign language programs, and joint extracurricular activities.

The report acknowledges that some co-location situations are more tense than others. It recommends the city create a system to monitor “high-risk co-locations” when one school is viewed as a “bad neighbor” because it resists collaboration or criticizes a school with which it shares space. When school leadership teams are unable to settle a dispute between themselves, the report also recommends that the city appoint an independent arbiter to resolve the impasses.

The report also suggests that the city should minimize changes that would uproot programs with students with severe special needs, an issue at the heart of a springtime scuffle over space at one of the schools where de Blasio nixed a space-sharing plan. Future plans should also set aside space specifically for mental health services, a nod to the de Blasio administration’s community schools initiative.

City Hall and the education department have already promised a number of reforms to the space-sharing process. Those included school walkthroughs by department officials when new co-locations are being considered, more public hearings before final co-location votes, and “campus squads” that will be dispatched to buildings with multiple schools to help resolve disputes.

The report’s release comes at a challenging moment for the de Blasio administration, which will have to quickly find space for at least four new charter schools as a result of new legislation. How the city handles that contentious process will be the first major test of the administration’s commitment to transparency and community involvement.

That law puts the city in bind: Many schools were already packed to the brim before de Blasio introduced his signature pre-kindergarten expansion and his plan to locate more service providers in schools, both of which absorb space. The new law says the city must find even more space in its cramped buildings for charter schools, or pay for more-expensive private locations.

“This law will have at least some, possibly significant, impact on space availability going forward,” Buery and Fariña wrote in their introduction to the new report.

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