Thompson: 'DOE's Bldg. Plan is Flawed, Fails To Solve Overcrowding'
Despite the Department of Education's ongoing construction program of more than 36,000 new elementary and middle school seats, the city public school system is failing to build enough new schools to make a dent in the severe overcrowding problem that has plagued the system for several decades and probably will continue, Comptroller William C. Thompson charged recently.
Thompson said that a major reason why this situation continues to afflict the 1.1- million student school system is the flawed capital planning process that guides the DOE and which fails to detect the need for more schools in neighborhoods experiencing construction booms in Queens and in other boroughs.
"The capital planning process for public schools in New York City is broken," Thompson declared. "There are too many neighborhoods with overcrowded schools- elementary schools in particular- and no relief for years to come. With the DOE, it's too little too late."
Thompson said his conclusions on the serious shortcomings of the city school building program and its failure to solve the longstanding overcrowding problem were based on a report done by his staff, entitled "Growing Pains: The Need to Reform Department of Education Capital Planning to Keep Pace With New York City's Residential Construction".
Based on the report, Thompson performed a five-borough, neighborhood-byneighborhood analysis contrasting the number of new seats provided in the 2005- 09 school construction plan with expected population growth.
Thompson said the study found that planning for new capacity has been hampered because enrollment projections are derived only from community school district population counts and not from counting populations in individual neighborhoods.
In Queens, the report found that population growth in the western part of the borough had been "dramatic". Elsewhere it identifies communities that are rapidly expanding without sufficient planning for more school seats.
Although citywide school enrollment is projected to decline by 2015, the comptroller, an announced candidate for mayor in 2009, said he found a number of neighborhoods where new housing will prompt a population surge, the demand for elementary and middle school seats is growing and many schools are operating near or above capacity.
Several areas identified as fitting this pattern, he said, are:
•Flushing, College Point, Whitestone. Four of the seven elementary schools in Flushing were overcrowded in October 2006. With more than 1,000 new housing units under construction or in advanced planning in Flushing, local education officials believe that the sole K-3 school provided in the 2005-09 Capital Plan won't adequately address current and future needs. In College Point and Whitestone, the six elementary schools were overcapacity and in four schools students were being taught in trailers, but no new seats are being planned.
•Long Island City. While thousands of new residents have been moving to Queens West and the surrounding area- at least 3,300 units were completed since 2005 or are now under construction- the sole public school there has space for only 237 students and has been operating at capacity. The only middle school is nowhere near Queens West. Nevertheless, the 2005-09 Capital Plan provides no relief.
•Corona, Elmhurst, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood. CSD 24 had the highest CSD capacity utilization rate in the city. The proportion of seats estimated to be completed by the end of the Plan fell from 73 percent in 2004 to 37 percent in 2008 and from 3,400 seats to 1,937 seats even as the total number of planned seats rose by 12 percent.
•Astoria, Long Island City, Jackson Heights, Steinway, Woodside. In CSD 30, 1,219 of 1,260 seats still have not been sited, and the 2005-2009 Capital Plan February 2008 Proposed Amendment estimated that they will not be completed until at least 2011.
•Jamaica, Briarwood, Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Rego Park. In CSD 28, stand-alone primary schools were at 104 percent of capacity and primary intermediate schools were at 101 percent of capacity in October 2006. However, as of February 2008, construction had started merely on a 216-seat Early Childhood Education Center.
"In these and other neighborhoods, additional school seats- elementary school seats in particular- are urgently needed," Thompson said. "Yet, in many cases, they do not appear in the Capital Plan, or are severely delayed. This means that thousands of children will be taught in overcrowded conditions for years to come."
Thompson continued: "A viable school system is essential to maintaining economic diversity and a strong, vibrant middle class. In addition, in a city where immigration is an important part of our economy, our ability to accelerate the process for English Language Learners is hampered by overcrowding."
The report further identifies communities where population growth may be slower, but the 2005- 09 Capital Plan provides too few seats or none at all, though additional seats may be required.
The Comptroller noted that in a number of neighborhoods, desperately needed new elementary and middle school capacity provided for in the 2005-09 Capital Plan might not be completed for another five or six years. According to the 2005-09 Capital Plan Proposed Amendment (February 2008), 63.4 percent of the 36,551 new elementary and middle school seats now provided for in the Plan will not be completed until after the Plan period, compared to 41.1 percent of 39,204 seats in the 2005-09 Capital Plan as it was initially adopted in June 2004.
Thompson said he also has a series of proposals to help remove the flaws from the DOE's way of operating and to put it on the road toward fixing the problem of classroom overcrowding.
He said their present planning process to determine new school sites begins with the periodic 5- and 10-year enrollment projections for each community school district (CSD), which are prepared by the Grier Partnership consultants.
"Unfortunately," he said, "the Grier projections do not take into account building permits for new housing construction." And, he pointed out, "the number of housing units authorized by permit nearly doubled between 2003 and 2005, reaching a record in 2007."
He also noted, "It is extremely troubling that the process for siting new school capacity is not sufficiently forward-thinking or responsive to changing neighborhoods."
Thompson also noted that rather than basing enrollment projections on each of 32 CSDs, the DOE should divide each CSD into a number of communities, with separate enrollment projections and school capacity planning.
Among his other suggestions, Thompson said the DOE and School Construction Authority (SCA) should implement a process similar to that required by other city agencies under the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) in order to assess in a more timely fashion the impact of new housing development on school enrollment.
Thompson included several proposals that could provide financial incentives for developers to participate in mixed-use projects containing elementary and middle schools. Among the latter, he would allow the New York City Educational Construction Fund to finance mixed-use projects on private property, would allow the New York City Industrial Development Agency to finance industrial and commercial projects that include a public school and provide a new property tax exemption for private residential developments that include a school.
"Ensuring a reliable, consistent, transparent, and effective capital planning and construction process for New York City's public schools is extremely important," Thompson said. "The costs of school overcrowding are high: larger class sizes and less individual attention for students, no space to provide art, music and science instruction to ensure that students receive a well-rounded education; lack of space for physical education, making it impossible for many schools to comply with State law governing the amount of time students must receive physical education per week; and disengagement by parents who may decide to send their children to non-public schools or to relocate from the city altogether."