By Jordan Heller
LOWER MANHATTAN — An education advocacy group released a report Tuesday claiming that 50,000 out of the 130,000 seats the Education Department said were added over the last 12 years are unaccounted for.
On the steps of the Tweed Courthouse — the headquarters for the D.O.E. — members of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) were joined by city leaders in unveiling the highly critical study, called "Capacity Counts: Demonstrating the Need for Adequate, Transparent Data."
The report says that it can only account for 80,000 seats worth of new school construction and suspects that Education Department officials are making up the difference by counting re-purposed space — such as converted libraries, art rooms and science rooms — as new classroom space. By doing so, schools are able to report that they have a higher capacity for students than is actually true, according to the CFE.
"CFE is concerned that many 'new' seats that are added to schools' totals seem to be replacing valuable learning space instead of adding to it," said Helaine Doran, deputy director of CFE and the author of the report.
"The city takes away a library or an art studio to add another classroom as a stop-gap measure to reduce the appearance of overcrowding, and our kids suffer the consequences," she said.
A D.O.E. spokesperson called the study "deeply flawed" in a statement, and said the CFE ignored "the wide variety of ways we've created new school space around the City and how school leaders use buildings differently from year to year."
The D.O.E. added that the report under-counted the number of new seats by nearly 60,000.
But Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said Tuesday that the CFE's report is very clear in showing that there are tens of thousands of missing school seats for city students. He took an optimistic, if slightly sarcastic, view of the incoming D.O.E. chief's ability to address the issue.
"We are very lucky that our new chancellor, Cathie Black, has a background in publishing, because she will be able to determine that this 'Blue Book' is a work of fiction, not fact," he said, referring to the DOE's Enrollment Capacity Utilization reports, which specify how much classroom space is available in each school.
Councilman Robert Jackson said the CFE's report backed his claim that a recently approved five-year D.O.E. capital plan stating that no new classroom seats were needed in Manhattan — except in District 2, which includes the Upper East Side, Tribeca, Gramercy Park, Soho, and the West Village — is "not real."
Based on the CFE's findings, City Comptroller John Liu announced Tuesday that his office had begun an audit of the Enrollment Capacity Utilization reports.
"There has been much fanfare in recent years about 'new school openings,' yet parents, teachers and principals have seen little alleviation in overcrowding," Liu said in a statement. "The first step is to ensure the accuracy and reliability of data on current school capacity."