Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley sought to block the Department of Education on Tuesday as it tried to move a plan for a new high school in Maspeth through the first phase of city approval.
Crowley (D-Middle Village) sparred with DOE reps, particularly Micah Lasher, the executive director of public affairs, who want to build a 1,100-student high school at the former Restaurant Depot on 57th Avenue and 74th Street.
While Crowley supports building a school at the location, the argument swirled primarily about who will get to go there: Crowley, as well as Community Board 5, wants students in the surrounding area to get the first shot at seats, before extending priority out farther into the district and finally the borough; the DOE, however, will give priority to students in District 24, but will not narrow down the scope any further.
The public hearing was held by the City Council Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Use in Manhattan.
Many of those attending the hearing were members of local civic groups who do not want to see a school built at the site at all. The Juniper Park Civic Association and Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, whose members are opposed to the school, offered bus transportation for those who wanted to testify.
Lasher framed the argument as being over a difference in the city’s enrollment policy, not the site. He said the DOE, under the current administration, does not create high schools for specific neighborhoods. Instead, it creates schools that are open to all city students.
But Crowley said that under the current proposal, a child who lives across from the school would have a one in 20 shot at getting in, as District 24 — one of the largest and most overcrowded in the city — graduates roughly 4,500 students per year.
“Nobody in this community wants this school as it is now,” she said, adding that she cannot vote for it in its current form.
Lasher fired back that to guarantee every student in Maspeth a seat, the DOE would need to build a 6,000-seat high school.
“What you are asking us to do is restore a policy that’s exclusionary, and we’re not prepared to do that,” he said.
Much of the concern over the site revolves around oversaturation and transportation issues. Another two schools are just blocks away, so nearby streets, including the retail strip on Grand Avenue, are packed with kids, cars and buses when the morning and afternoon bells ring.
Compounding the issue, the location is cut off from most public transportation. The nearest subway station is almost a mile away, at Queens Boulevard and Grand Avenue, and no express trains stop there. Also, the main bus route servicing the area is the Q58, which is already often crowded.
While many of the Queens members of the subcommittee were sympathetic to Crowley’s concerns, Councilman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) was far from it. Noting that the audience was almost exclusively white, he claimed the residents want the school locally zoned to exclude children of color.
“You want to come here with your councilmember and try to justify segregation,” Barron said, adding, “… they want to keep their high school for their white children.”
However, most in attendance were not trying to restrict attendance, but instead were against the project in its entirety.
Barron said the administration’s policy of opening schools to all city students was a way to integrate children from different areas and of different ethnicities. He criticized the DOE for compromising as much as it has by offering priority to residents of the school district.
He asked the subcommittee members to vote in favor of the proposal to help alleviate overcrowding in Queens schools.
Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said he also wants the city to help relieve overcrowding, but had a different tact. Liu said the need for more school seats exists all throughout northern Queens and the proposed school is too small and the location too remote to address the larger problem.
He said he had proposed a location in Flushing owned by Home Depot that would be perfect for a school, but the DOE has never seriously pursued it.
He also accused the DOE of injecting the race issue, mentioned by Barron, behind the scenes.
Community members who attended the hearing almost unanimously sounded their disapproval of building a school at the site.
“There are locations where a school won’t work,” said Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. “This is one of them.”
In particular, Holden cited the problems with the public transportation in the area. He said that if the administration wants students to be able to go to schools in all five boroughs, it should make them easily accessible by train.
Christina Wilkinson, secretary of the JPCA, added that the Q58 is probably the slowest bus route in Queens and is always overcrowded. Wilkinson said the decision to place a school where proposed “really boggles the mind.”
Gary Giordano, district manager of C.B. 5, defended the area from the “segregationist” claims made by Barron, saying that schools such as I.S. 73 in Maspeth are made up of a “mosaic” of students of different races.
Giordano also commented on the amount of traffic and students already in the area. “There are congestion issues here I don’t think you can match,” he said.
Tony Nunziato, a member of the Maspeth Chamber of Commerce, added that such congestion had smothered business along Grand Avenue.
Only Marge Kolb, a Woodside parent and president of the School District 24 President’s Council, spoke in favor of the proposal.
Kolb said the location is a good one as it is centrally located in the district and could help relieve overcrowding from two other high schools. Of the parents she has spoken to, only two were opposed, she said.
“We need to think about the kids in all of this,” she continued. “A high school is not a detriment to a community. It’s an asset.”
Lasher implored the council members to approve the request, noting that if they do not, it would be the first time since at least 2002 that a new school is turned down.
But Liu said the plan presented by the DOE was “half-baked.”
“Don’t blame it on us for not doing your work,” he said.
The City Council is expected to vote on the proposal today, if it is approved by both the subcommittee and the Land Use Committee.