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Parents Call on City to Fight School Overcrowding by Doubling New Seats

By Amy Zimmer | June 18, 2015 5:40pm
 The trailers have been in place for at least two decades at the Roosevelt Avenue school in Queens
The trailers have been in place for at least two decades at the Roosevelt Avenue school in Queens
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

MANHATTAN — Parents are imploring the city to more than double the number of seats planned for city schools — saying that unless an estimated 100,000 new seats are provided, children in overcrowded schools will continue to be forced to eat lunch as early as 10 a.m., go without gym or recess and get special education services in hallways or closets.

Despite worsening overcrowding conditions that have seen the largest class size at elementary schools in more than a decade, Mayor Bill de Blasio's capital plan only allots up to an additional 38,650 seats, according to the advocacy group Class Size Matters.

In addition, de Blasio's budget is approximately $23 billion — $5 billion less than the budget put forward in the previous 10-year plan under Mayor Bloomberg, advocates said.

"The budget for education went down under de Blasio. He's cut education to make room for affordable housing, but how are you going to educate the children moving into those apartments? Mary Cecilia "M.C." Sweeney, a Forest Hills mom, asked Thursday during a protest on the steps of City Hall.

Sweeney, who recently started a petition addressing the issue, was joined at the protest by fellow parents from other schools, including Brooklyn Heights' P.S. 8, the Upper West Side's P.S. 199 and Forest Hills' P.S. 144.

Sweeney began joining forces with other parents when her local school, P.S. 196, announced it had to place dozens of would-be students onto a waitlist (which has since cleared). The waitlist didn't affect Sweeney's 2-year-old daughter — but it still mobilized her into action.

"I'm just moved by outrage. I thought if I move now, there should be no excuse when my child goes to kindergarten in 2017," she said. Still, "my child may not get a kindergarten seat two years from now even though [the Department of Education] knows about it right now," she noted.

The DOE fixed the P.S. 196 kindergarten waitlist problem by cutting pre-K classes for September.  But now the community is divided because pre-K children have been shut out of the schools, said Sweeney, who criticized the DOE for failing to use data to properly plan for the future.

"The DOE uses an opaque method — they don't explain how much space they plan for. Where they get the population data, we still don't know," she said. "They're always planning something that's not consistent with actual population data."

Many agree there have been problems with the DOE's formula for estimating each school's optimal capacity. The department convened a working group more than a year ago to review it; however, their recommendations have yet to be made public.

"The mayor promised during his campaign to support a more ambitious capital plan that would provide the space necessary to eliminate overcrowding and allow for smaller classes. Yet the opposite has happened," said Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters. "This is despite the fact that the latest census figures show NYC to be the fastest-growing city in the country."

Public Advocate Letitia James wrote a letter earlier this month asking the city to double the number of school seats, citing an Independent Budget Office estimate that the city could do so for an estimated $125 million more per year. She added that the city had the funds to do so, as they planned to spend $127 million a year on a five-year contract with an IT vendor, Computer Consultant Specialists, to wire NYC schools.

"For approximately the same amount that the DOE was prepared to pay for this contract," James wrote, "the number of seats in the capital plan could be doubled and we could begin to meet the real needs of NYC public school students."

DOE officials have acknowledged previously that the number of planned school seats falls short of demand.

"Even with new seats, we recognize that overcrowded buildings exist in certain geographic pockets throughout the city," Elizabeth Rose, deputy chancellor for the DOE's strategy and policy, said at a City Council hearing,

DOE spokesman Jason Fink said Thursday: "The DOE is taking critical steps to combat overcrowding by building new schools, upgrading and improving existing schools and removing trailers so that every student can learn in the best environment possible."