DOE Must Stop Planning Schools in a Vacuum
Feb 24, 2009 | 3230 views | 0 0 comments | 45 45 recommendations | email to a friend | print
This administration needs to reexamine how the Department of Education (DOE) goes about building schools throughout the city.

There is very little available space for schools to be built, so the new buildings are put in areas that are residential in character. In their zeal for as much classroom space as they can get their hands on, DOE has let the School Construction Authority (SCA) on the loose to shove these schools down our throats.

The SCA tells communities they are compelled to build the new schools big, and argue that it may never get another space as wonderful as this again, so we all must seize the opportunity - fast. This, while all statistics say that the future of proper education must include smaller schools and smaller classes.

Even though SCA has presented new school plans to communities for over a decade, they hardly come to locally scheduled hearings with the ability to answer the real questions. SCA marches into community meetings answering questions about traffic, parking, school zoning, prospective themes, and true school seat need, with phrases like "...it's not our area," "...we'll try to get it done," "...you're right, let's see if we can get that accomplished."

Meanwhile, at community hearings, parents of school kids are typically prepared to advocate for any school, no matter where or how big. They are ready to jeer and yell at those who dare question the proposed school's impact on a neighborhood.

No reasonable person walks away from the hearing or meeting feeling that they were "heard."

It has been our experience that impact studies are either not done or are done in a DOE vacuum, with no input from the community and entirely hidden from public view. And we all have to pay for the mistakes with snarled streets around schools and parking problems that have a domino effect ten blocks away.

Councilwoman Melinda Katz and former Councilman Dennis Gallagher saw this all too well when SCA oversaw the building of two schools in Forest Hills. The schools, on Metropolitan Avenue off Woodhaven Boulevard, were supposed to be primarily zoned for children who lived in the community first.

"That is the impression we both got from SCA," said Gallagher in 2006, when asked about the zoning of the school. He was shocked after receiving a letter from the schools chancellor, which informed them that the 750-seat local intermediate school they supported (grades 6 through 12) would not be locally zoned after all.

After community "review", the City Council typically rubber stamps approval because they were sold the bill of goods that the city is in desperate need of more school seats everywhere. We are lucky to have found a spot at all, and if we let this proposed site go, then we might not find another. Or so the argument goes.

It's all posturing by DOE, and it's done at the expense of our residential communities.

A Case Study

SCA has gone before Community Board 5 in Queens twice in order to get approval for a new high school in Maspeth. They were prepared for the community board to oppose the school, but they were not prepared for the reasons or that the political climate in the district. Newly elected Councilwoman Liz Crowley is on a mission to change DOE's approach when new schools are proposed to a community.

The rush to get the site typically has the parent advocates nudging the process along, but those same parents see that their child might not be attending the school if the zoning issue isn't addressed.

Introducing a new school in a neighborhood needs responsible community input. It's a facility that will be around for 100 years. It's not to be rushed; it's not to be leveraged. The Maspeth community and CB5 have been reasonable in their acceptance of change. They have asked the right questions, had the right attitude, and understand the connection of responsible community planning for the future of CB5 residents - and that means families without children as well.

DOE must change the way it builds schools, and it starts with involving multiple city agencies with the expertise to address all of the issues.

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