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Comptroller's report takes aim at city's past efforts to decrease overcrowding

Jackie Schechter

A new audit by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office takes aim at Bloomberg-era efforts to minimize school overcrowding, and urges the city to keep better records of its new push to reduce the number of jam-packed buildings.

The report, which looks at the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, says that the education department had failed not only to alleviate overcrowding but also to demonstrate it had a strategy for doing so.

“They can’t produce a napkin. Give me something!” Stringer said Wednesday.

His frustration is directed at an administration that is no longer in office. Fariña has dispersed the Office of Portfolio Management, and the de Blasio administration has said it wants to tackle overcrowding and is largely on board with the report’s conclusions.

Still, the de Blasio administration is tasked with a school system where many buildings are well above capacity.

Thirty-six percent of the city’s school buildings were overcrowded in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, and the 59 most overcrowded buildings were at an average of 167 percent capacity. Among the most crowded schools was P.S. 319 in Williamsburg, at 238 percent utilization, and P.S. 30 in the South Bronx, which was at 221 percent.

Overcrowding remained steady those two years, though enrollment increased by close to 9,000 students (and has been growing year-over-year since 2008, school officials point out). That “suggests that the strategies used to address overcrowding are having impact,” the education department said in the audit.

A few of the changes recommended by Stringer’s office are already in the works. Its report notes that some statistics in the Blue Book, the city’s record of school space and enrollment, were misleading because they didn’t properly account for students in classroom trailers.

Since taking office in January, school officials have said that the removal of those trailers is a priority. Thirty-one trailers have already been eliminated from nine school sites and 47 more will be eliminated from 17 schools in the next couple of years, the department said.

They’ve also revised the Blue Book to stop counting space in trailers to measure a school’s capacity. The city’s $12.8 billion capital plan for 2015-2019 would create tens of thousands of new seats to help reduce overcrowding, though advocates have noted that those seats will not keep pace with expected growth.

The audit suggests that the city better document its efforts to reduce overcrowding, by keeping written policies, evidence of suggestions and their implementation, and by tracking their success.

In response, the department said it would create guidelines, but not requirements, for how it will address overcrowding, saying that conditions in each building required some flexibility.

“I think they get it,” Stringer said of the new administration. “I think they’re on it.”

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