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Queens Chronicle

Queens to get fewer school seats

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Posted: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 12:00 am

The good news is that the Department of Education is in the process of providing more than 11,000 seats in Queens to combat school overcrowding.

The bad news? The new five-year capital plan for schools, for 2010-2014, is $2 billion less than the last, and officials don’t yet know if the money currently designated will still be there after budget cuts.

The five-year initiative, which must be reviewed and approved by the City Council, has a proposed budget of $11.3 billion, with $5.2 billion to increase capacity by adding 42 new school buildings. The plan is funded 50/50 by the city and state — and therein lies the problem.

There is no guarantee that either entity will be able to secure the funding requested. While it doesn’t appear city funds will walk away from the plan, the state has yet to address a $1.5 billion gap in this year’s fiscal budget and a possible $15 billion shortfall next year.

Lorraine Grillo is the executive director and chief of staff of the School Construction Authority, which manages the design, construction and renovation of school capital projects in the city. Grillo told the Queens Borough President’s Parent Advisory Council on Nov. 18 that she doesn’t know how the authority’s budget would be affected by the economic situation. “Obviously we are concerned,” she said.

The proposed plan includes 8,842 elementary school seats and 1,100 high school seats in Queens. District 29 is the only one in the borough allotted no new seats, to the dismay of some in attendance.

Grillo said that while some schools in District 29 — which includes Queens Village, Hollis, St. Albans, Springfield Gardens, Rosedale and Jamaica Estates — may be near capacity, the district as a whole is not. “We have to look at this citywide. We have to put the resources where the needs are the most,” Grillo said.

District 30, which includes Long Island City, Woodside, Sunnyside and Astoria, is scheduled to receive the most elementary school seats at 3,048. District 24 — the most overcrowded in the city encompassing Maspeth, Ridgewood, Middle Village, Glendale and Corona — is scheduled for 2,630.

The remaining spots are spread between districts 25, 26, 27 and 28.

Some education advocates have come out against the plan, saying it doesn’t provide nearly enough seats for the city. In particular, Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, has criticized the Department of Education, claiming Queens alone needs an additional 55,000 spots just to eliminate overcrowding and lower class size to the city’s goals.

Grillo said that while the rough economic times were factored into the capital plan’s budget, the DOE was highly successful with siting seats over the previous five years, so the 25,000-seat figure fulfills the need the department sees.

Those spots that were planned for in the previous document but couldn’t be sited have been rolled over into the new plan. However, it doesn’t appear they will hold priority over the others, an issue which Dmytro Fedkowskyj, chairman of the committee, found unfortunate.

Fedkowskyj said those rolled-over spots should not be affected by any budget cuts because they were already funded. If a site were to become available, the SCA should make sure the money is available to make it happen, he said. “The seats that were not put into place because of lack of site location should not prevent them from moving forward if a site becomes available,” he said.

While that may seem logical, Grillo replied the SCA didn’t know how deep or how far the budget cuts would go, and what may be affected.

Those seats had to be rolled over into the new plan because the SCA could not find space to build in those districts. In District 30, the SCA worked for five years to increase spots and was only able to expand P.S. 78, creating 41 seats, in Long Island City. Hoarding that money to wait for space would restrict the creation of seats in other areas, Grillo said.

The SCA will visit community education council’s over the coming weeks to gather input on the document. A reworked version will then go to the Panel for Education Policy, which oversees DOE policy decisions, before going to the City Council for approval.

While the future may be rocky, Grillo gave a brief presentation highlighting some of the SCA’s successes in the 2005-09 plan. Almost every school district was touched by a new school.

In particular, she highlighted the Elmhurst Educational Campus in Corona, which the DOE opened this year. The SCA transformed a former leather factory into a campus that currently holds five schools, though over time it will be reduced to four.

Other new spaces include P.S. 303, which the SCA transformed from the offices for District 28 into a childhood center, and the construction of P.S. 307, a new building on Roosevelt Avenue in Corona across from P.S. 19, which has historically been the most overcrowded school in the city.

To date, the SCA has awarded over $1 billion in contracts for work within Queens alone in the 2005-09 plan.

“I think we were pretty darn successful in this capital plan,” Grillo said.

Budget cuts broken down

Schools in the city will have to reduce their budgets by 1.3 percent if Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to eliminate $181 million from the Department of Education is made.

That 1.3 percent represents about $104 million of the decrease. Half the schools in the city were able to roll over money left over from the 2008 fiscal budget. As the schools cannot eliminate any positions, they will have to cut after-school or enrichment programs, or supplies.

Central office will take the largest hit, with a $45 million cut, or six percent of its budget. Another $26 million will come from cuts in custodial services, maintenance and repair contracts and the elimination of some trade positions.

There is a chance schools will have to make further cuts if the state eliminates funding designated for the city.

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