The Department of Education's (DOE) push for City Council approval of the project was slowed last week when Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley struck a rare agreement with the DOE to extend the review process for the school one more month.
The last-minute power play buys the councilwoman added time to continue her negotiation for changes to the current school proposal to ensure that local teenagers are given enrollment priority. Crowley will have to move fast, however.
Just three days after the Council's Land Use Committee decided to postpone voting on the school, on February 26 the education department's School Construction Authority (SCA) went ahead with a previously scheduled public hearing to inform residents of the agency's plans to use eminent domain to acquire the proposed site for the school. The hearing indicated the DOE's desire to move forward with the project despite the stalled City Council approval process.
The SCA, the DOE’s division in charge of school construction, plans to tear down a building at 74th Street and 57th Avenue in Maspeth to build the proposed 1,100-seat high school.
Crowley and Community Board 5 members have strongly opposed the project unless it is zoned to give local students enrollment priority over students from other neighborhoods and school districts in Queens, where many high schools are already overcrowded.
The DOE, which has a standing policy against locally zoning high schools, has offered to give priority to District 24 students. DOE spokesman Will Havemann said this would ensure that a majority of students at the new school would come from the district, if not specifically from Maspeth.
"We have an opportunity to build a great school that will benefit our community and help alleviate the dire overcrowding in public high schools throughout Queens," Crowley said in a statement after winning the extended review period for the school. "However, by refusing neighborhood preference to local students, the DOE's proposed plans for the new Maspeth high school do not address the infrastructure and education needs of our community."
Crowley said the extra month allows for renewed dialogue between the city, DOE and the Maspeth community to reach an agreement on the school.
"I look forward to working with parents, community leaders and DOE in the coming weeks on a new plan that is the best possible solution for our community and kids," Crowley said.
At the SCA's February 26th public hearing, dozens of Maspeth residents, as well as several members of community boards 4 and 5, opposed the authority's plans to seize the property through eminent domain, and harshly criticized the DOE for not locally zoning the school.
"We are sick and tired of the city coming and eminent domain-ing property to build schools and other city services," said Nick Pennachio, a member of CB4.
Anthony Moreno, another CB4 member, said the new school would strain a neighborhood that already has too many public schools concentrated within blocks of each other.
"Why does Maspeth have to be the school campus for school district 24?" Moreno asked at the hearing. "Maspeth is not the dumping grounds for all the kids in New York City. Yes they need an education, but they don't have to have it here in Maspeth."
A much smaller contingent of parents and educators spoke in favor of the school, arguing it would alleviate overcrowding in neighboring Grover Cleveland and Newtown High Schools if the new school is locally zoned.
"Queens high schools are busting at the seams," said Dermot Smyth, a Maspeth public school teacher who spoke on behalf of the United Federation of Teachers. "The children of this community of Queens have a right to the seats in this high school.”
A majority of those opposed to the school that spoke at the hearing were older residents without school-aged children, but parents of students said they would welcome a new school.
"I need that high school in this neighborhood for my child to be safe," said Tricia Puleo, whose young child currently commutes to a school in another part of Queens. If the high school isn't built, Puleo wondered, "Where am I going to put him?"
Marge Kolb, president of District 24's PTA president's council, an organization representing all the PTA groups in the school district, defended the city's decision to use eminent domain to build the school.
"I'm not a fan of random eminent domain, but certainly for a public use such as a school," said Kolb, "that's an excellent use." Kolb said if local students are given priority, there are more than enough Maspeth families ready and waiting to enroll their children the new school. "We can fill this high school with kids that live in the area," Kolb said. "There is a need for the high school."
As Kolb spoke, the contentious hearing, punctuated by rude exchanges between advocates and opponents of the school, erupted as one enraged, out-of-control community board member shouted Kolb down for her support. The SCA representative threatened to close the hearing, and CB5 District Manager Gary Giordano had to step in to restore order.
Havemann said DOE exhausted all other options before turning to eminent domain law to try and purchase the selected school site.
Havemann said the DOE would work on the school proposal with Crowley over the next month, but he stressed that by decreasing the school's proposed size from 1,600 to 1,100 students and offering district enrollment priority, the DOE has already addressed many of the community's concerns and is eager to build the school.
"We believe it’s essential that we get this done," Havemann said.