Under Albany's new budget agreement, New York City's school capital plan will regain roughly 12,000 seats — a boon to school officials who expected harsher cuts, but a number that does not meet earlier demand estimates.
In November of last year, city officials estimated that they would need to increase earlier seat construction projections in the face of overcrowding in schools. At the time, they planned for 50,074 new seats to be built by 2014, many of them in elementary and middle schools where demand had ballooned.
Then came a proposal from Governor Andrew Cuomo to cap state spending on school construction aid. The plan would have significantly reduced the state's contribution. To absorb the cut, city officials said they wouldn't be able to build thousands of the seats they had planned on — a decision that would have affected schools in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Riverdale, Bronx, the most.
But now that Cuomo's proposal has not been included in the budget agreement, the numbers have changed again. With $1.7 billion more to spend on school construction, the city can now afford to build about 26,500 seats, instead of the roughly 14,000 it had planned on.
City officials said that more information about which neighborhoods would benefit from the seat construction increase, and which would not feel any effect, would be released tomorrow.
Charter school heads will visit City Hall tomorrow to present Mayor Bloomberg with an audacious request: They would like him to go over state lawmakers' heads and restore a funding freeze that Albany probably won't.
This year, lawmakers froze charter schools' per-pupil funding levels at last year's level, denying school leaders almost $1,000 per student in an expected increase. Given the rotten budget climate, it's likely the legislature will do the same to next year's budget.
To fight back, charter school leaders tomorrow will meet with Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott — and, they hope, with Bloomberg, too — to suggest two possible solutions. Bloomberg can either "negotiate with Albany to remove the freeze," as Charter School Center head James Merriman wrote in an e-mail last week. Or, Merriman wrote:
he can substitute other funds in the City's own budget.
With the Bloomberg administration's proposed capital-spending budget for schools up for the City Council's consideration, lawmakers are taking a novel approach: Rather than vote yes or no, they are asking for a change in state law that would give them more power to revise it.
The change could not actually be marshaled through Albany in time for this year's capital budget, but it does send a signal that city lawmakers are interested in conducting more oversight over the public schools.
Council Speaker Christine Quinn said that the council aims to have the same kind of input into the city's school capital budget as it has in the Department of Education's operating budget. Each spring, the council negotiates changes in that budget. Sometimes, those changes are substantial, such as last year, when the council won the restoration of $129 million in school funds.
But on school construction, the council must vote simply yes or no on a plan that contains hundreds of individual projects. The plan has been a popular target for advocates who have said it doesn't come close to meeting the city's need for more school buildings. It has also made an attractive target for elected officials, especially in Manhattan, where parents have been strenuously protesting school crowding.
The city Department of Education is spared the worst of city agencies' impending budget cuts, according to the executive budget proposal released by Mayor Bloomberg today for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Lots of city agencies are being asked to fire employees, and spending citywide on capital projects has been slashed by 27 percent, Bloomberg said at a briefing for reporters about the plan today. On the other hand, he said, "We have a school system that we are putting more money in than we did last year." The budget proposed today includes $10,810,000 in city funds for public schools. By the end of the current fiscal year, according to budget documents distributed today, the DOE will have received $10,462,000 in city funds.
The DOE is being asked merely not to replace teachers who leave, not outright fire teachers, Bloomberg said. Plus, he said, federal stabilization money will allow the DOE to escape the deep cuts in capital funds that other city agencies are experiencing. Although the new capital plan is smaller than the one that is now ending, the DOE is being spared the 27 percent capital budget reduction that other agencies are set to experience. Whether the DOE would be included in a citywide reduction in capital spending had been an open question.
Responding to a reporter's question about cuts to other agencies that could impede their ability to help needy New Yorkers, Bloomberg cited the philosophy of his chancellor, Joel Klein. "You're never going to fix poverty until you fix public education," Bloomberg said.
"I'm always happy to hear the mayor adopt my philosophy," Klein told me when I asked him what he thought about hearing the philosophy he has promoted as the founder of the Education Equality Project being used to explain cuts in city services that some have called "ruthless."
Klein sounded less sanguine when discussing the school budget picture.
With billions of dollars in federal support for school construction projects on the horizon, New York City is shortsighted to undersell its need for new schools, teachers union president Randi Weingarten said at yesterday's City Council hearing about the city's proposed capital plan.
President-elect Obama's top aide confirmed yesterday that school construction projects will be part of the new administration's stimulus package to create jobs and encourage spending by states, according to Alyson Klein of Education Week. Governors, who are staring at massive budget shortfalls, this week asked Obama for $130 billion to support infrastructure projects, including schools.
What's so special about school construction? In contrast with some other infrastructure projects, states are always planning to build or enhance schools, so they can get to work on those projects in a relatively short amount of time. Plus, many believe that capital investments in schools can pay off in improved educational quality.
But the city doesn't have a robust school building agenda right now. This is "absolutely the wrong way to go in this situation" because it could result in the city's schools being shut out of a federal stimulus package, Weingarten said yesterday.
"If this [federal] money is out there, and we don't have a plan, we won't be in the queue," she said.
I spent the afternoon at the City Council's hearing on the School Construction Authority's proposed capital plan, and I tried to post updates as they happened. Unfortunately, the wireless at City Hall wasn't cooperating, so here are some highlights of the hearing, just a few hours after it ended.
1:20 p.m. Education Committee chair Robert Jackson led off right away with the elephant in the room: the economy. He said the city is facing "very difficult economic times" and noted that the mayor has requested that all city agencies reduce their capital requests by 20 percent. Economic conditions didn't stop Jackson from saying that the council wants to "take [the SCA] to task for unresolved problems and exaggerated claims." In particular, he pointed to the authority's claim that the current capital plan is the largest in the city's history, noting that many more seats were created in the early years of the 20th century. Jackson also noted the Campaign for a Better Capital Plan's finding that more school seats were added in the last six years of the Giuliani administration than in the first six year's of Bloomberg's.
1:30 p.m. Kathleen Grimm, the DOE's deputy chancellor for administration, drew some laughter when she read from her prepared testimony about the DOE's recent "capital accomplishments" the departments's oft-repeated claim that the current capital plan, which runs through the end of June 2009, is the largest in its history. She said in the future she'll be specifying that it's the largest plan in SCA's history, not the DOE's. The state created SCA in 1988.
1:45 p.m. SCA head Sharon Greenberger walked council members through a Power Point presentation about the proposed capital plan. She noted that the SCA did incorporate a plan for class size reduction into its calculations — but the reduction was to 28 students in grades 4-8 and 30 in high school, not 23 as the state Contracts for Excellence requires for those grades.
When several families arrived at a Park Slope middle school for an evening basketball practice recently, they were surprised to find themselves locked out. The gym, they learned, had been closed without warning so that construction workers could make repairs. The basketball team couldn’t practice, kids were disappointed, and parents were frustrated.
Most parents would chalk the experience up as just one of the many small injustices of family life in the city. But for Sharon Greenberger, a Park Slope resident and mother of two, it was a professional learning experience.
Greenberger leads the city’s School Construction Authority, the agency that oversees the building of new buildings and the repairs work for the old ones. In recent years, that has become a daunting job. More and more children are being brought up in the city, leaving parents distraught that public school buildings might not have enough room to fit them. At the same time, the city’s aging stock of school buildings — most are at least 90 years old — has required extensive repairs. Greenberger is the woman charged with balancing demand for new schools against the need to maintain old ones, an acrobatic challenge that has only gotten harder as grim fiscal realities set in.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at yesterday's rally.
The atmosphere at the rally for a new middle school at 75 Morton St. yesterday was more like that of a festival than a protest. Supporters arrived on stilts, manned a lemonade and cookie stand, and tied balloons to their wrists as they celebrated the city's announcement that it would seek to preserve 75 Morton St., a fully handicapped-accessible state-owned building, as a public middle school.
"I'm confident that ... very soon, we will be standing outside of this building in a different way, welcoming students," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told the crowd of parents, community leaders, and elected officials who assembled on Morton Street in the late-afternoon sun. The building can undergo "renovation, not construction or major reconstruction," said Deborah Glick, the State Assembly representative from the neighborhood, and open as a fully wired middle school in 2009.
But even though activism in District 2 appears to have been successful at the site of the rally, there is room for improvement elsewhere in the district and throughout the city, speakers emphasized. "It's not just about 75 Morton," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. "It's about your multi-million dollar capital plan." The city's next plan, due to go into effect next summer, must reflect coordination between education and city planning officials, he said.