Schools Chancellor Waves off Overcrowding Complaints

By Jill Colvin on December 8, 2011 3:53pm 

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that he's focused on middle schools.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that he's focused on middle schools.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

CHELSEA — Despite a series of deep budget cuts, school overcrowding around the city is not as bad as was originally expected, School Chancellor Dennis Walcott told parents at a town hall Wednesday.

Walcott made the remarks as he shot down a proposal to turn the Department of Education's headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse into a school in order to help relieve overcrowding in rapidly growing Lower Manhattan neighborhoods.

At a town hall meeting hosted by District 2's Community Education Council, Walcott said that while "class size has gone up" since a 2.4 percent budget cut eliminated thousands of teaching positions this school year, the increases “quite frankly have been below where we might have expected."

Elementary classes city-wide have increased by 3.1 percent, on average, from 23.7 students to 24.4, city data show. Middle school classes have increaed 1.1 percent from 26.8 students to 27.1 and high school classes have increased 1.7 percent from 26.4 students to 26.8.

Walcott had warned in June that classrooms across the board would increase by about two to three students per class as a result of the cuts.

Despite the increases, the chancellor, speaking at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex on West 18th Street, dismissed a suggestion by State Sen. Daniel Squadron that the former courthouse be transformed into a school to help alleviate pressure on downtown classrooms.

"It's not realistic and it's not something we would consider," Walcott said. “I understand [you see this] building downtown, why not use it? But from a reality standpoint, it just doesn’t work.”

The ground floor of the Chambers Street building is already being used to house classes of the Innovate Manhattan Charter School and will be used next fall as an incubator for the new Peck Slip School.

But Walcott said that the building is unsuitable for a full-size school and argued that administrators need a centralized, modern space to run the country's largest school system.

He also refuted accusations by parents that schools across the district are bursting at the seams.

"We know we have pockets of overcrowding," he said, but argued that the situation is not as bad as some describe.

Downtown mom Danielle Bello said that her neighborhood is facing a "colossal overcrowding crisis" and urged the city to do more.

"We're not keeping up," CEC member Michael Markowitz said.

But Walcott stressed that the DOE has opened 10 new schools in District 2 since 2003, when the mayor took control of the school system, and said the city is always looking for new spaces as well as other solutions.

“We definitely need to make sure that we are as creative as possible,” he told parents, many of whom pressed the chancellor to take new residential developments into account when trying to calculate future student demand.

While numerous parents and council members also complained that the DOE leaves them out of the city's decision-making process, Walcott disagreed.

“We as parents want a say,” said CEC Vice President Elizabeth Weiss. “We want to be able to sit down with the SCA before, not after [decisions are made].”

Walcott said he was open to meeting, but said he feels the DOE has been doing a good job.

"I hear you, but I also know we have been engaged in conversations with people from the district,” he said, adding that, "At the end of the day, the decision rests with me."

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