Although the proposed math, science and technology elementary and intermediate school at Queens College has been put on hold, school officials stress that it will become a reality somewhere else on the campus.
The brainchild of ousted President Dr. Allen Sessoms, the proposed 767-seat school, to be known as PS 499, is a collaboration between the college, Board of Education and School Construction Authority.
It was scheduled to be built north of Kiely Hall, which is west of Kissena Boulevard. But sources indicated that the size wasn’t appropriate for the space needed and that the architect asked for a better location.
Margie Feinberg, spokesperson for the Board of Education, said they are looking for an alternative site and that she hopes it won’t affect construction plans. The school, expected to cost $31 million, was supposed to open in September 2002.
Lorraine Grillo, spokesperson for the School Construction Authority, confirmed the delay, but said her department was not responsible for site selection.
Both Feinberg and Jay Hershenson, CUNY vice chancellor for university relations, stressed that the new public school would be located on the Queens College campus.
“This is a high-priority collaboration,” Hershenson said. “The site location is under review and when the college’s acting president begins, there will be a fresh look at locations.
“The new location will be responsive to the needs of the community and to the development of the school.”
Following pressure from the CUNY board, Sessoms resigned in April, effective August 31st, and according to sources on the Flushing campus, he will remain until that date.
Named as acting president is Russell Hotzler, university dean of academic affairs for CUNY. He previously served for many years as provost at Queensborough Community College in Bayside.
Dean Burt Backner, Queens College dean of students, said the current situation is a bit awkward but that things would work out when the acting president officially takes over September 1st.
“Sessoms will be here through August and the interim president is here, too,” he said. “We kind of have two presidents now because Sessoms says he still has work to do.
“It’s a little awkward because people wonder who is the president,” Backner added.
Ron Cannava, director of college relations at Queens College, said that the departing president hasn’t announced his future plans.
Sessoms, a controversial president for the last four years, was under fire for trying to add dorms on campus and attempting to merge the two-year Queensborough Community College into a joint institution, both without reaching out to the community or CUNY officials.
But the final straw was his unsuccessful attempt to locate a prestigious AIDS research center on campus that never had adequate funding and then misled CUNY officials about it.
Despite this embarrassment, Sessoms is credited with fostering the idea for an elementary school on campus that would take students from throughout the borough in a lottery system.
It would not be under any local school district but rather would be under the jurisdiction of the Chancellor’s Office. As spelled out by Sessoms, the school will be able to use the academic and campus resources as well as serve as a laboratory for Queens College student teachers.
At a Community Board 8 hearing in June on the proposed school, attended by about 25 people, many residents of the area objected to the school, citing already overcrowded streets due to college-generated traffic.
At that time SCA officials did not provide information on traffic, parking and other aspects of the project. It was only last week that it was learned the plan had been put on hold. An environmental review was to follow the June hearing.
Pat Dolan, president of the Kew Gardens Hills Homeowners Civic Association, who has opposed the project, is also a member of Community Board 8. She learned the school plan was on hold when she checked with the SCA to find out about the environmental hearing.
Dolan said she was told the SCA expects Queens College to come up with three alternative sites on campus.
Now, Dolan said, after a new site is selected, another public hearing will have to be held by Community Board 8. That will be followed by an environmental and traffic review hearing.
“No way can construction begin before next spring,” she said. “That will definitely delay the 2002 opening.”
One nearby resident against the project on campus is David Kulick, president of the Flushing on the Hill Taxpayers Association and cochairman of Neighbors for Responsible Development at Queens College.
“This is an opportunity for CUNY and the Board of Eduction to re-examine all the options for this school,” he said. “There are important issues regarding traffic, the environment and the impact on Queens College of constructing an elementary school on an almost built-out campus.”
He said he was surprised that the city is investigating other sites on campus because “the one announced was picked as the best one.
“I live around there and there is nowhere to build other than the athletic field and I am worried that the college will condemn more houses for expansion.”
He said while he would never stand in the way of improvement to the college, “we like it as it is. It is essentially a neighborhood college.”
Kulick said one of the greatest concerns was parking. That idea was echoed by Dr. Ronald Rothenberg, a Queens College math professor and member of its Academic Senate.
“There is no room for the school on campus,” he said. “There is no room on the athletic field either.”
He added that parking is a major issue for faculty as well and that on a typical school day you can’t find parking anywhere on campus.
“And that’s with fewer students than the college could have,” he said. “Enrollment is down.”
Rothenberg estimates that the proposed school, which will go from pre-school to eighth grade, will need 20 to 30 buses to transport students.
“What’s going to happen at 3 p.m.?” he asked. “Where will the buses line up and where will the faculty and staff park? It’s a glaring problem.”
The professor said he believes the college campus reached its capacity a few years ago with the completion of Townsend Harris High School.
“We just don’t have the room for anything else.”
Kulick and Rothenberg would like to see an alternate site selected off campus but officials, including Borough President Claire Shulman, were firm that the project will stay at the college.
The elementary school officially opened last fall in three transportable classrooms for pre-school and kindergarten classes on campus. This fall, an additional transportable will be added for another pre-school class and there will be a new principal.
Cannava confirmed that the acting principal, Elvira Barone, will not return and the search is on for a permanent replacement, which the college hopes to have in place when school opens in September.
But CUNY’s Hershenson, a Queens College graduate himself, says delays and detours should not be interpreted as an end to the proposed school.
“Everyone involved wants to see the school move forward expeditiously,” he said.