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Squadron Proposes Legislation Intended to Prevent School Overcrowding

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State Senator Daniel Squadron is introducing a bill in Albany today designed to prevent the kind of school overcrowding problem plaguing our neighbors on the West Side. He announced the legislation yesterday in front of P.S. 234 in Tribeca, with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh looking on.

Although Lower East Side schools are not experiencing anything like the overcrowding crisis preoccupying parents in Tribeca and the Financial District, some parent activists here are sounding the alarm that the LES could be next if the Department of Education does not commit to building new schools.

The bill is based on recommendations in a recent report released by Stringer’s office. If the bill becomes law, the DOE would be required to consider birth rate projections from the Department of Health and population projections from the Department of City Planning, in deciding when and where to put new schools. It would also mandate the public release of data used to project student populations. Finally the bill would require the DOE to “make public all comments it receives in response to its school siting plans and five-year capital plan, and must respond to those comments.”

In a news release, Squadron said, “”When planning is off, communities suffer — that’s why we need better data, more transparency and a stronger voice for the community in school-seat planning.  These changes would offer more tools to prevent overcrowding and improve long-term planning for our schools.”

In spite of the addition of two new schools, the overcrowding crisis on the West Side appears to be far from over. Parents have complained loudly about the DOE’s flawed projections but also about the refusal to release assessments of school facilities and a clear explanation of how those projections are made.

Parent activists stood with Squadron yesterday, saying they were supportive of any effort increasing transparency in New York City’s public schools. They praised him for focusing on solutions to the problem.  Leonie Haimson of the organization, “Class Size Matters,” offered her qualified support, indicating the bill was a “good first step.” After the news conference, Haimson said she’ll work to work to strengthen the legislation. She wants an independent analysis of the DOE’s projections and other statistics. Haimson also called for the public release of comprehensive “Needs Assessments” of NYC schools.

For several years, parent activists on the East Side have argued that DOE statistics are essentially meaningless. As the recent dispute over the expansion of the Girls Prep Middle School illustrated, there’s a huge discrepancy between the DOE’s “school utilization rates” and the first hand accounts of school administrators and teachers.  They have argued, for example, that spaces used for special education, science labs, art and counseling are in very short supply. They also point to statistics showing the Lower East Side is the fastest growing school district in the city.

The pressures on the West Side are largely the result of a plan put in place after 9/11 to create thousands of new apartments in the neighborhood.  Population growth, fueled by gentrification, is of course an ongoing concern on the Lower East Side.  The economic downturn may have relieved any immediate pressure to plan for future growth. Education activists are urging the city, however, not to make the LES “the next Tribeca.”

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