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Furious Board Urges City to Restore Slashed School Seats

By Jill Colvin | September 29, 2011 7:56am | Updated on September 29, 2011 9:32am
Demolition began at the Teamster's building at 10 E. 15th St. where a public middle and high school will be built.
Demolition began at the Teamster's building at 10 E. 15th St. where a public middle and high school will be built.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

MIDTOWN — Furious members of Midtown’s Community Board 5 are urging the city to reverse its decision to shrink a soon-to-be-built public school, arguing the district is desperately in need of new classrooms to ease overcrowding.

As DNAinfo reported earlier this month, the city's Department of Education recently said it would slash the size of a new middle and high school at 10 E. 15th Street by more than 100 seats following a push by City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who cited residents’ complaints about the impact of the school on the Union Square neighborhood.

But members of the board, which represents Midtown from 14th street to 59th, say the “community” that Mendez has advocated for is limited to residents from a single building whose voices should not be allowed to drown out the needs of everyone else.

City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez addressed concerns about her position on a new school at a Community Board 5 meeting Tuesday night.
City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez addressed concerns about her position on a new school at a Community Board 5 meeting Tuesday night.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

“We had these seats. We can’t lose them. There is a pressing need,” CB5 Education, Housing and Human Services committee chair Layla Law-Gisiko said at a committee meeting Tuesday night, where Mendez also spoke.

“Our goal is to get these seats back,” Law-Gisiko said before the committee voted unanimously to draft a letter to the School Construction Authority urging them to restore the capacity back to 866 seats from the current 735.

Construction plans have not yet been filed for the school, which is expected to house both the Clinton School for Writers & Artists and a yet-to-be-named high school.

Tuesday’s meeting came after a heated showdown at CB5’s last full board meeting, when members criticized Mendez for failing to consult with the board as changes to the school size were being discussed.

“She totally blew us off. She completely disrespected the community board and that was not right,” board member Greg Socha said.

Others slammed the City Councilwoman publicly for her stance.

“It was not the community that objected to this project. It was one building worried about their property rates that objected to this,” said Wally Rubin, District Manager of the board.

The members were referring to residents of The Victoria, at 7 E. 14th St., who have been vehement in their opposition to the school, with some arguing that it should be built somewhere else.

The board and Mendez’s office said they received numerous complaints from residents there, including concerns that students would be forced to look into residents’ bedrooms, that the influx of foot traffic would stress an already crowded park, and that buses for special needs kids might cause congestion.

They also expressed deep frustrations over the lack of information they’d received from the SCA about construction at the site.

In an attempt to defend her record, Mendez addressed the committee Tuesday and said she has supported the new school at every step. Nonetheless, she said she had received numerous emails and calls from concerned residents and promised, at a July meeting held in the Victoria’s lobby, that she would try to help address those complaints by rolling back the building's size.

“For me, everybody matters,” she said, defending the residents’ rights and also apologizing to the board for failing to keep them in the loop.

Board members acknowledged that Victoria residents had legitimate concerns, but maintained the needs of the larger district and its children deserved greater weight. They said the community needs every seat it can get, especially given the difficulty of getting new schools approved.

“We’re just getting more and more residents every year. We’re already bursting at the seams,” said committee co-chair Renee Cafaro, before the committee began to switch gears to discuss what to do next.

But Mendez appeared to have had enough.

“I understand that you’re not happy. I get that,” said Mendez, who then excused herself and left.

The move left many in the room lost for words.

Committee members later voted to write a letter to the SCA and others urging them to restore all of the school's original seats.

“I totally reject the notion that the SCA can’t change their mind,” board member Eric Stern said of the intervention.

Mendez’s staff has repeatedly ignored requests from DNAinfo for additional information about whether residents outside the Victoria had filed complaints. 

The full board is expected to weigh in on the issue at its next meeting on October 13.

Construction on the new school is set to begin this spring.