Op/Ed: Community Concerns Ignored in Neighborhood School Construction Project

The following article was written by Marjorie Ingall, a parent at The Neighborhood School.

A 2012 Kindergarten class; photo posted by Raelene Birkett, Neighborhood School web site.

A 2012 Kindergarten class; photo posted by Raelene Birkett, Neighborhood School web site.

The School Construction Authority (SCA) is shoving small children and taking their lunch money. (Metaphorically.) They’re also brushing off our community’s concerns about health and safety.

Imagine you’re a working parent. (Or hey, maybe you actually are!) Now imagine you’ve just learned that you’re suddenly going to lose your after-school childcare…including free childcare for low-income families. Your kid’s school is going to lose its recess yard for untold years. And the school building is going to undergo a massive project of asbestos-removal and re-pointing that will affect the entire neighborhood, but the folks doing the work won’t offer meaningful evidence of the project’s safety.

Now imagine you live near this kid’s school. (Oh, fine, I’ll end the suspense: It’s The Neighborhood School/Star Academy PS 63 on East 3rd Street.) Surprise! Within weeks, the SCA, which handles the Department of Education’s renovation and building needs, is slated to start a massive construction project. It’s happening despite inadequate notice. It’s happening over parents’ and teachers’ objections. And it’s happening despite a failure to put up signs in the community explaining its potential health impact.

Hey, got any questions about the consequences of asbestos removal? Or about the effects of the release of dust from old mortar between the bricks? You should. When repointing or “raking” occurs, PCBs and silica can be released into the air, which can cause silicosis and asthma. But the SCA brushes off such concerns.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that The East Village Community School on East 12th Street is completely encased in black netting, making it look like the Death Star. Going to school inside a dark box might be great for pretentious Bennington theater students, but it’s not so great for small children who need light. There’s white netting that’s far less oppressive (and PS 29 in Brooklyn, a school that kicked up a ruckus, got it when their SCA number came up), but the SCA prefers not to mention it (and an SCA representative actually told a Neighborhood School parent that there was no such thing as code-compliant white netting). Perhaps you walked by PS 39 in Brooklyn last year, and saw a playground blocked off and covered by scaffolding. It looked that way for two-and-a-half years. The SCA had told parents it would be inaccessible for only 18 months. Not so much. And yesterday a parent at PS 154 in Brooklyn reported, “The SCA put up scaffolding at our school over the summer, so there was really no chance for parents to question the project. Our schoolyard is cut in more than half.” In our community, the SCA is refusing to do air-quality testing inside the building, since the work is happening on the outside. Apparently they have not heard of these nutty things called “windows.” In a 100-year-old building, windows leak.

The SCA has a long history of pushing through massive projects without adequate notice or input from those affected. In only two days of asking around in email and on Facebook, local parents found eight other schools in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn that have been on the receiving end of SCA bullying: The Brooklyn New School/PS 146, Community Roots/PS 67 in Brooklyn, EVCS, PS 154, 29 and 39 all report recent “hey, too bad, this is what we’re doing” encounters with the SCA.

Look, we understand that construction work needs to happen. Our requests are few. We want the start date, which was presented as a fait accompli mere days before the project was scheduled to begin, to be pushed back until our questions are addressed. We want an outside agency to perform nightly tests for asbestos levels both inside and outside the building. We want a safe plan for recess to be put into place. And we want working parents to have on-site childcare, and for teachers to get to have their curriculum-planning meetings when the school day ends at 3:45. We’d like the work to start at 6pm and for all noise to cease at 10pm.

Thankfully, parents at PS 29 (whose kick-butt PTA won a bunch of concessions) have been generously sharing resources and strategies with other schools via a web site (http://construction.ps29brooklyn.org/) and in email. Community Education Council member Lisa Donlan has been advocating with the City Council on the school’s behalf. Parents have reached out to politicians like Rosie Mendez and Scott Stringer, with their histories of standing up for District 1 public schools…and indeed, Mendez got the project start delayed for at least a week. (You probably heard the massive sigh of relief that resounded through the East Village and Lower East Side on Friday.) Thanks to Mendez’s efforts, the school postponed a protest slated for Tuesday, but parents and kids are battling on. We’re trying to enlist the help of the teachers’ union and emailing Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott (dmwalcott@schools.nyc.gov), Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (kgrimm@schools.nyc.gov) and SCA CEO Lorraine Grillo (lgrillo@nycsca.org). All we want is time, transparency and accountability.

But as Mark Ladov of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest puts it, “Parents shouldn’t have to organize protests just to ensure that school construction projects follow best practices when it comes to environmental health and safety. The SCA should do more to involve community members in their work. Parents and communities have a right to be part of the process, and to be assured that children are being kept safe and healthy.”