Officials assured anxious parents at a meeting last Thursday evening that District 26 schools will be well maintained.
“The capital plan is not set in stone,” said Sharon Greenberger, president of the School Construction Authority.
It is year four of the city’s five-year education capital budget plan and the School Construction Authority is seeking input from the Community Education District 26 Council, for its next five-year plan to cover school construction from 2010 to 2014.
“Your prioritizing is crucial, it’ll be one of the major factors determining the budget allocations,” said Mary Leas, SCA project support manager.
Council members raised one of the biggest challenges faced by District 26 when seeking adequate funding: The schools here are hardly lagging. They are among the best equipped and maintained in the city and their academic record of achievement is impressive.
Ironically, members say, the outstanding academic performance of schools there often works against them when they seek funding. “Everything is about priorities, and it can be relatively easy to establish an argument that other school districts have a greater need,” Leas said.
She reported that of the 29 school buildings in the district, 17 would be receiving capital improvements during 2008 and 2009 worth $42 million. The type of work to be undertaken includes auditorium upgrades and exterior work such as masonry repair and windows.
She pointed out that many schools in places like Brownsville and East New York don’t have gymnasiums and so it’s very important that these areas receive funding to bring their schools up to scratch.
Leas asked the council to look at schools in their district, focusing on architectural, electrical, mechanical and other categories and rate them.
Greenberger also addressed the meeting, reiterating the importance of schools prioritizing their capital budget needs. She explained that there was a great need for improvements and confirmed that the planned restructuring of high schools into smaller, more intense learning institutions would consume significant Department of Education and SCA resources.
In response to questions and complaints from parents regarding the electrical wiring at district schools, Greenberger said that her agency must work with Con Edison and coordinate work schedules.
Asked whether the agency looked at statistics and demographics when determining budget allocation between districts, she said excluding building starts, it did, adding that the SCA look closely at projected growth.
“This agency works closely with the Department of Buildings and pays special attention to zoning issues,” Greenberger said, conceding that the Department of Education could more easily obtain zoning variance than a private citizen.
She reported that during 2007, 300 new buildings were built by the SCA and pointed to the American Martyrs School site at 226-15 Peck Ave. in Bayside as a good example of the type of acquisition the authority undertakes.
“If the Department of Education had to go through the regular public review system, it would never find landlords willing to lease land,” she said.
The former Catholic school closed in 2006 due to dwindling enrollment.
A decision on what grade levels should be implemented at the American Martyrs site is pending, with remodeling slated for September 2009.
The most likely use of the former Catholic elementary school will be as a small high school or an early childhood center. The latter is particularly attractive to the Department of Education because the site doesn’t have a gym or a full auditorium.
Greenberger said that a site such as American Martyrs, which has been a school since it was first developed, is less likely to face serious environmental issues than a former industrial site, making the process faster and cheaper.
Robert Caloras, president of Community District Education Council District 26, asked if the School Construction Authority ever used eminent domain to obtain building sites.
Greenberger said it does on rare occasions but added, “We often threaten to use it,” noting that the SCA would not use eminent domain to obtain a private house nor would it to destroy a viable business.
Greenberger added that the SCA investigates high school needs boroughwide rather than by district as it is looking to achieve the most economical methods in construction.
She reiterated the importance of the community review process. “Residents don’t want schools with older children in their neighborhoods.”
To a question from parents about when construction work is undertaken, Greenberger said that it goes on all year. Summer school and other activities mean that schools are occupied most of the year. “Work often commences at 4 p.m. so that noise disruption is kept to a minimum,” she said.
Greenberger confirmed that while companies go through a screening process, individual workers’ criminal records are not checked, although all site workers must wear an I.D. badge.