State Assembly lawmakers want to tweak one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s major budget initiatives in order to fast-track the removal of New York City’s controversial classroom trailers.
Cuomo has pushed the initiative, a $2 billion bond act, primarily as a way for districts to improve broadband in schools and upgrade classroom technology. Districts could also use it to build pre-K classrooms, a provision Mayor Bill de Blasio already plans to take advantage of — even though the funds aren’t approved yet.
Now, the Assembly wants the funds for another use: to find permanent classroom space for thousands of students who go to class in trailers.
“A lot of us have been working for a long time to get rid of them and this would be a good use of that money and a way to direct some funding to get rid of them,” Assembly Education Chair Catherine Nolan said this week.
Across the city last year, about 7,100 students attended class in more than 350 “transportable classroom units”, or trailers, which have been installed in school yards and parking lots because there isn’t enough room inside overcrowded school buildings. The supposedly short-term fix has now stretched into its third decade, bringing a host of health issues and other less-than-ideal learning conditions that teachers say need to be addressed.
“Kids should be in classrooms. Full, big classrooms, not half-classrooms,” said Arthur Goldstein, who for the last 10 years has taught English inside one of the eight classroom trailers installed at Francis Lewis High School in Queens. “They should be in real spaces.”
De Blasio has made the issue a priority in his five-year capital spending plan for the School Construction Authority, which would set aside $500 million exclusively for the removal of classroom trailers, accounting for the largest increase in capital improvements. The plan was scrutinized during a budget hearing on Tuesday, where City Council members questioned de Blasio’s ambitious timeline, which calls for the removal of all trailers.
“I am concerned that removing TCUs may not be an achievable goal given the SCA’s inability to meet capacity needs,” Education Chair Danny Dromm said in his prepared remarks.
Dromm’s worries could be assuaged if the Assembly’s version of the Smart Schools bond proposal, which Cuomo first floated during his State of the State speech in January, gets passed by the legislature and then approved as voter referendum in November.
The Assembly added money to the bond proposal, as well as language that would authorize the money to be spent to replace classroom trailers. New York City is poised to receive $783 million from the bonds under Cuomo’s proposal, but closer to $1 billion under the Assembly plan, Nolan said.
De Blasio already wants to use $300 million of those bonds to expand prekindergarten capacity to support his universal pre-K campaign promise. The financial planning, based on statewide funds that need to clear two hurdles, has raised questions from budget watchdogs.
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm alluded to the uncertain funding today when asked about the city’s back-up plans for pre-K construction.
“I think it would be unhappy if we found ourselves in a position where that money wasn’t coming in,” Grimm said.
Whether de Blasio would also use the funding to eliminate trailers is an open question, since his capital plan doesn’t explicitly mention it as a potential funding source. But it’s a clear priority for Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has raised the issue repeatedly when asked about whether he’d support increasing facilities funds for charter schools.
“This whole right of having a building around you — yet there’s thousands of children sitting in trailers in city public schools. Does anybody speak for their right?” Silver told reporters last week, according to Capital New York, “They don’t have Wall Street billionaires who can put ads on, or contribute to campaigns, and therefore, nobody represents them and they’re doomed to sitting in trailers for the rest of their school career?”
Cuomo’s press office did not respond to questions about his position on the Assembly’s bond act proposal. Cuomo’s version does not include any language around the trailers and the Senate hasn’t included the legislation, in any form, in its budget proposal.
But teachers who have been working in the trailers for years said that funding priority is a no-brainer.
“I would personally rather get rid of the trailers and put kids into the classrooms,” Goldstein said.
Patrick Wall contributed reporting.