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'Blindsided' Residents Demand Answers from New Private School in Red Hook

By Nikhita Venugopal | November 27, 2013 11:31am
 A 1,000-seat private school for grade K through 12 is coming to 556 Columbia St. in Red Hook.
A 1,000-seat private school for grade K through 12 is coming to 556 Columbia St. in Red Hook.
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Facebook/Basis Independent Brooklyn

RED HOOK — Red Hook residents are outraged over a plan to open a pricey private school in their neighborhood, saying they were "blindsided" by the announcement and they don't see how it will benefit their community. 

Basis Independent Brooklyn plans to charge $23,500 in annual tuition and offer no scholarships when it opens its 1,000-seat school next fall on Columbia Street — just a few blocks from Brooklyn's largest public housing complex.

“People just come into our community and just overlook us,” said Lillie Marshall, president of the tenants' association for Red Hook Houses West“Do they really realize where they are putting this school?”

The median household income for the immediate area around the school, which includes Red Hook Houses, is $16,748, according to recent Census data.

Basis Independent Brooklyn, operated by an Arizona-based charter school company, hopes to offer scholarships sometime in the future but won't have any in its first year, officials told residents at a Community Board 6 meeting earlier this month. Tuition for kindergarten through 12th grade will be $23,500 per year.

Basis will work with local arts groups and aims "to be an enrichment to the Red Hook neighborhood," Mark Redford, CEO of Basis schools, told CB6 on Nov. 14. The company runs charter schools in Texas, Arizona and Washington, D.C., but the 556 Columbia St. school will be their first private one.

Despite Redford's reassurances, many residents and community leaders fear that rather than benefiting Red Hook, the school will cause headaches for the neighborhood, including more traffic.

"Frankly, it's taking (valuable waterfront property) from the community and giving nothing back," said Alev Dervish, a teacher at P.S. 15 in Red Hook, in an email. Dervish said Basis should work with organizations like the Red Hook Community Justice Center and Good Shepherd Services to find ways to support the community.

Red Hook first learned of Basis' plans at the Nov. 14 CB6 meeting, when the company sought the board's advisory approval for a special permit from the Board of Standards and Appeals that would allow them to build the 89,556-square-foot building in an area that is not currently zoned for school use.

CB6 approved the permit at its Nov. 14 meeting, but some residents are trying to mobilize to reverse that decision before the board takes a final vote on Dec. 11. 

“The first new construction in the vicinity of the Red Hook Houses has the potential to be a man-made disaster,” community newspaper the Red Hook Star-Revue said in an editorial urging residents to contact CB6.

CB6 will not hold another public hearing on the project before the Dec. 11 vote, according to district manager Craig Hammerman.

Wally Bazemore, a longtime resident of the Red Hook Houses and neighborhood activist, said many questions about the project remain unanswered.

“We just got blindsided,” he said.

Bazemore demanded “clarity and transparency” on issues like whether workers for the school’s construction would be hired from the neighborhood and who would sit on a promised community advisory board. Bazemore also wanted to know how many scholarships would be offered in the future and how much financial support students would receive.

“Some of us are very concerned,” Bazemore said. “Nobody in this community can pay $23,000 a year.”

Basis Independent Brooklyn did not return requests for comment.

Concerned residents plan to meet soon to discuss the school plan and what to do about it, said Kristin Eno, an educator in Red Hook.

"When Basis opens its doors to the community and uses some of its vast resources to meet some of these neighborhood needs, a bridge will start to form," said Eno, in an email.

"Until then, the school and the community need to begin having conversations and listening to one another."

In the meantime, Marshall, the tenant leader at Red Hook Houses West, said she is frustrated that no one from the school reached out to the housing development even though the school was required to alert all property owners and tenants within a 400-foot radius of the property as part of its Board of Standards and Appeals application.

“This has gone too far,” Marshall said.  “We do not need it here.”