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Murry Bergtraum High School Still Without Phone Service After Sandy

By Irene Plagianos | February 6, 2013 7:20am

LOWER MANHATTAN — A Lower Manhattan high school still has no phone service more than three months after Superstorm Sandy crippled its main line of communication.

The Murry Bergtraum High School managed to reopen just a few days after the storm.

But the 1,800-student facility, which has been plagued by problems in recent years, has had to rely on cell phones, leaving teachers anxious about potential emergencies and many parents unable to reach the school.

"I call and I call and I get no one," said one angry parent Tuesday as he was picking up his teenaged son.

"They say it's Sandy, it's Sandy, but this isn't a third world country. This is crazy, no one can fix this? And City Hall is right across the street."

Without working phones, calling the school’s number leads to a ceaseless busy signal. But on the school’s new website, launched at the end of November, and its Facebook page there’s no mention of the downed phone lines or an alternative number to ring.

The school's Department of Education web page also does not make any note of the non-working phones.

In an emailed statement, DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said that the lines were “severely damaged” by the hurricane and that the DOE has provided cell phones to administrators while “the telecommunications vendor repairs the system.” She did not give a timeline for fixing the phones.

She added, “The computer system continues to work.”

But as Murry Bergtraum teacher John Elfrank-Dana pointed out, email may not come in handy in the midst of a crisis — and with cell phone service spotty in certain parts of the building, it’s possible even personal phones may not work.

Elfrank-Dana, a Social Studies teacher for 23 years, has reason for concern.

The school, in a state of decline over the past few years, has been the site of a string of violent outbursts including a massive brawl involving dozens of students in March, an arson attempt in October and, most recently, an assault on its own safety officers in November.

As for the DOE phones provided to the administration, Elfrank-Dana, also the school’s United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, only knows of one.

He said teachers were given a number to call or text, between 5:30 and 6:45 a.m., if they were calling in sick. A school aide who usually runs the switchboard is responsible for that phone, he said.

Other teachers said there might be another DOE cell phone being used by the staff.

However, none of the teachers who spoke to DNAinfo.com New York, including Elfrank-Dana, could say for sure if parents were given an alternate number to reach the school.

“I’m not aware of any letter being sent out to parents,” said Elfrank-Dana. “And if there was some announcement made at some kind of PTA meeting, there were probably only a couple of parents there.”

Elfrank-Dana said if he has needed to reach a parent, he’s either sent a letter home with a student, or sent an email.

Of course, even with the lack of a main line, there are many personal phones in the school. Despite a city ban on cell phones and other electronic devices for students, many still bring them to school.

Many of the school’s students, most of whom come from low-income families from across Manhattan, said they didn’t even know there was a problem with the main phone line.

“I just know they are strict about phones,” said one 15-year-old as she walked out of the school building, located at 411 Pearl St., just a few blocks from City Hall and right across the street from One Police Plaza.

“If they see it, they’ll take it.”

But, said Elfrank-Dana, "right now we’re safer if we don’t abide by the chancellor’s regulation [on cell phone bans.]”

He said, at this point, teachers and staff are just waiting for the phones, which were actually up-and-running for a couple of days a few weeks ago, to start working again.

"Maybe if parents were banging down the door of the principal or the superintendent, we'd see some change," Elfrank-Dana said.

"But that doesn't happen here — many parents don't speak English very well or they're afraid to get involved, or just don't get involved."

He said he heard, most recently from the head custodian, that the phones were supposed to have been working by Jan. 30. 

Like in other Lower Manhattan buildings deluged with salty, corrosive floodwaters, the service provider Verizon has said it’s replacing destroyed copper lines with new fiber-optic cables. Other residential customers and businesses are still without service Downtown.

Verizon did not return calls for comment.

Many critics, including Elfrank-Dana, say the school, once a high-performing, sought-after institution, has been left to fall apart under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the lack of phones is just the sour cherry on top of a host of other issues.

Murry Bergtraum’s principal, Lottie Almonte, did not immediately return a request for comment.