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.
Remember how, in 2001, when he was first running for mayor, Michael Bloomberg vowed to require all public school students to wear uniforms, to bring in private companies to take over long-failing schools, and to re-evaluate tenured teachers every two years?
These are among the fun facts included in a self-evaluation Bloomberg released today, running through all the promises he made in his 2001 and 2005 campaigns, and reporting that he's followed through with most of them (97% in 2005, the report says).
The list of education promises Bloomberg terms stick-a-fork-in-it "Done" (as opposed to those he "reconsidered") includes many that did obviously happen, but it also includes claims that could inspire challenge. Four promises that caught my eye:
Improve access to selective schools for students in under-served communities. (2005 campaign promise) The mayor's report notes that the city now offers summer workshops for parents to encourage them to consider having their children take the entrance exam for selective high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. The city has also offered summer test-prep institutes for low-income students. Still, The New York Times reported last year that proportionately fewer racial minorities were taking the admissions exam, and a lower percentage were passing. There was little change when the paper reexamined the figures this year. Gifted and talented programs for primary school students, meanwhile, have also gotten less racially diverse under Bloomberg's watch, The Times reported.
Give teachers more control over how they teach. (2001 promise) The report explains that this "done" stems from the new availability of "a series of tools for teachers that highlight students needs and provides teachers the information to focus on helping students master their subjects." I assume that refers to projects like ARIS, the data warehouse, and the periodic assessments known as Acuity, meant to give teachers an ongoing portrait of what students do and don't know throughout the school year. While some teachers embrace these tools, others say the tools limit the way they teach, forcing them to focus too much time on test preparation.
Brooklyn House of Detention (via Flickr)
The fight to turn a shuttered Brooklyn jail into a school isn't over yet. The Brooklyn House of Detention is one of several projects the city could jettison in favor of increasing its school building budget by nearly half, according to a group of school construction advocates who are holding a press conference on the subject today.
The advocates, who include Comptroller William Thompson and City Council member David Yassky, are urging the city to redirect the funds it is planning to use for prisons and police training into building more schools. They will hold a press conference this morning at 1 Centre Street, the city's main administrative building.
Critics of the city's proposed 5-year school construction plan say it would barely make a dent in overcrowding and wouldn't help schools reduce their class sizes. But by moving funds from other places in its capital budget, especially from its planned spending on new jails, the city could afford to double the number of new school seats it builds in the coming years, they say.
The press conference is meant to alert council members that they can push for changes as they debate whether to approve the city's budgets, which must happen by the end of the month. "We're saying to council members that they have an opportunity to strike this jail plan from the budget," said Jamie Evans-Butler, who runs a group that opposes the Brooklyn jail plan, Stop BHOD.
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.