Building On Education:
Boroughwide Hunt For Room To Teach
Once a month, a War Room Meeting is
convened in the conference rooms of Queens Borough Hall. Its a battle over land and
the generals on hand include the Borough President, School Board Superintendents, the
School Construction Authority and the Division of School Facilities. Their goal is to keep
up with and cut through the bureaucracy in order to make a little more room for learning.
Borough President Claire Shulman has
declared a personal state of emergency over the overcrowding in her borough, and with
unquestioning determination, she told the Tribune last week that she would see the
five-year funding secured by the Mayor for construction in the borough was used and the
schools were built.
The "War Room Meetings," as she
calls them, are based on a long list of projects currently being investigated or in
progress around the borough and the list is dated each month to show the progress
or lack of progress for each site.
But the problem, as site selection
continues and construction slowly creeps forward, is that to add new schools you need
someplace to build them, and open space does not come easily in Queens nor is it
easy to make neighborhoods understand why their space is being enlisted.
John Ciafone, vice-president of Community
School Board 30, put it simply, "Queens is essentially built to the max."
Theres a lack of vacant land in Queens, particularly in the residential and
commercial business-filled neighborhoods which would benefit the most from new schools.
Karen Koslowitz, the Queens member of the
City Councils Education Committee, explained "due to the severe lack of space
in Queens schools, educators are looking at sites for schools that never would have been
thought of otherwise - theres no other choice."
Community School District
24, which includes the neighborhoods of Woodside, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood and
Sunnyside, is the most overcrowded school district in the entire City. Despite that, two
recent plans to add schools were met by mixed reaction from the community.
In Woodside, despite support
from some parents, plans for a 1,000 elementary seat school are still up in the air
following objections from a number of community leaders. A date for a public hearing to
determine the fate of the school, which would be located at the site of a former Stevens
appliance store on Queens Boulevard, has not yet been announced according to Community
Board 2 District Manager Dolores Rizzotto.
Back in the Spring, Community Board 2 voted
in opposition of the school by a vote of two-to-one. The Board cited safety concerns due
to the school being located on Queens Boulevard arguably the most dangerous stretch
of highway in the borough, for their disapproval. The Board also stated the site is in
transition and a 30-year lease has already been signed to convert the building into a PC
Richards electronics store.
"We need new schools, and we want new
schools -- just not in the site chosen," said Joseph Conley, chairperson of Community
Board 2. Aside from leasing problems, Conley believes "it would be extremely
dangerous for children to traverse Queens Boulevard," and also cited environmental
concerns due to a trucking company and gas station nearby.
CB 2 suggested the Board of Education look
into more "appropriate sites," including the Schemmerhorn Music Factory and the
former New York Times building. Borough President Claire Shulman and Schools
Chancellor Harold Levy have vowed to fight for the schools opening.
A proposed, 900-seat elementary school in
Maspeth ran into similar difficulties. Some local leaders and community members were
opposed to the school due to safety concerns regarding the schools proposed location
on Grand Avenue, considered by some to be dangerous for young students.
The Maspeth site was originally slated to
become a Staples, but the school will indeed open following a month-long City Council
hearing held in the spring which found in favor of the Board of Education. In cases where
landlords refuse to sell their properties to the Board of Ed., the City has the legal
right to condemn the property.
FOR ANSWERS WHEREVER POSSIBLE
Ciafone said, "Although
many residents and community leaders speak of the need for new schools, when it comes down
to a new school opening in their particular community, they often have a typical not
in my backyard policy."
School District 30 has been successful in
securing sights for new schools, but not without controversy. A new, 655 seat elementary
school will open in the district this September in the middle of a residential
Due to the location of the school, it has
drawn protest from the community but will open this fall. The building, whose exterior has
been designated a landmark by the City, is a former Jewish Synagogue.
According to Arlene Fleishman, member of
Flushing, Whitestone and College Points School District 25, overcrowding in one
district school was lessened by the conversion of an unused garage, located across the
street from the school, for educational purposes. Said Ron Levine, spokesperson for
Central Queens School District 28, "wherever theres even a reasonable
amount of unused space, you have to be hopeful and try to make the best out of it."
In attempts to alleviate overcrowding in
their district, Southeast Queens School District 29 has drawn criticism from local
residents regarding plans to open a 900-seat junior high school - on the grounds of the
Creedmoor Psychiatric Facility. Despite the large amount of open space available on the
grounds of Creedmoor, many within the community have called the plan "ludicrous"
and parents are concerned about the safety of their children due to the large number of
outpatients who currently visit the facility.
Also not without its share of controversy,
Queens College plans to build a several-hundred seat elementary school on the north side
of the campus facing Kissena Boulevard. Although supported by the local community board,
nearby residents have stated concerns about the school, largely traffic-related. The
school has recently run into problems, with construction currently being put on hold due
to uncertainty regarding the site chosen.
"We only have enough funding for one
new school, so we better make it count," said Fleishman, whose district will need to
accommodate an estimated four to five hundred additional incoming students this school
It is estimated that Queens
schools will be short some tens of thousands of school seats this coming school year
while already operating at well over 100 percent capacity. The overcrowding has
resulted in as many as 35- 40 students in some Queens classrooms, which school officials
have labeled "unacceptable."
While the other four boroughs
populations have stabilized and declined, thanks to immigration and a good quality of
living, Queens population has grown and continues to do so - an estimated 30,000
each year. School officials claim the population increase has directly resulted in the
lack of space for students and the need for new schools.
Last school year, some Queens schools were
forced to lease room from nearby churches and attach mobile trailers to school yards. Some
students were bused around their districts based on seat availability.
However, some are hopeful there is an end
in sight for the overcrowding. "The population increase is cyclical," said
Fleishman, who has served on School District 25 for over two decades. "Eventually,
the growth of new students will level off. If history serves right, it will have to."
School seats are needed as
soon as possible, and the process of starting a new school is a long one. First, the Board
of Educations Division of School Facilities searches out a site and requests a
feasibility study from the Citys School Construction Authority (SCA), which operates
independently from but works with the Board of Ed.
The SCA feasibility study includes
environmental impact of the school as well as impact on the surrounding community. Plans
are then subject to public hearings and must meet the approval of the local community
board, the local school board, the City Council, the Mayors office, and the public.
The following projects were
on the agenda for the August 10 War Room Meeting at Borough Hall. The listing includes the
School Board number and the project number of seats to come:
District 24: Rollover Capital
Projects, 2,075 total seats; New Capital
Plan Projects, 11,522 total seats; Completed, 2, 315 total seats.
District 25: Rollover Capital
Projects, 1,320; New Capital Plan Projects, 0;
District 27: Rollover Capital
Projects, 2,152; New Capital Plan Projects,
2,498; Completed, 1,548.
District 28: Rollover Capital
Projects, 650; New Capital Plan Projects, 0;
Completed, 1,263 total seats.
District 29: Rollover Capital
Projects, 1,465; New Capital Plan Projects,
2,112; Completed, 660.
District 30: Rollover Capital
Projects, 1,243; New Capital Plan Projects,
2,314; Completed, 1,783.
78Q: Rollover Capital Projects, 4,000; New Capital
Plan Projects, 8,850;