Live-blogging the City Council capital plan hearing, sort of

I spent the afternoon at the City Council’s hearing on the School Construction Authority’s proposed capital plan, and I tried to post updates as they happened. Unfortunately, the wireless at City Hall wasn’t cooperating, so here are some highlights of the hearing, just a few hours after it ended.

1:20 p.m. Education Committee chair Robert Jackson led off right away with the elephant in the room: the economy. He said the city is facing “very difficult economic times” and noted that the mayor has requested that all city agencies reduce their capital requests by 20 percent. Economic conditions didn’t stop Jackson from saying that the council wants to “take [the SCA] to task for unresolved problems and exaggerated claims.” In particular, he pointed to the authority’s claim that the current capital plan is the largest in the city’s history, noting that many more seats were created in the early years of the 20th century. Jackson also noted the Campaign for a Better Capital Plan‘s finding that more school seats were added in the last six years of the Giuliani administration than in the first six year’s of Bloomberg’s.

1:30 p.m. Kathleen Grimm, the DOE’s deputy chancellor for administration, drew some laughter when she read from her prepared testimony about the DOE’s recent “capital accomplishments” the departments’s oft-repeated claim that the current capital plan, which runs through the end of June 2009, is the largest in its history. She said in the future she’ll be specifying that it’s the largest plan in SCA’s history, not the DOE’s. The state created SCA in 1988.

1:45 p.m. SCA head Sharon Greenberger walked council members through a Power Point presentation about the proposed capital plan. She noted that the SCA did incorporate a plan for class size reduction into its calculations — but the reduction was to 28 students in grades 4-8 and 30 in high school, not 23 as the state Contracts for Excellence requires for those grades.

1:55 p.m. The economy rears its ugly head again. Jamie Smarr, head of the DOE’s Education Construction Fund, said he’s not focusing right now on developing new public-private partnerships to create more school seats. “My principal job is to keep the projects that we do have going through [the economic] contraction,” he said. Those projects, all of which are located in Manhattan’s District 2, include the PS 59/High School for Art and Design building whose plans were released in October.

2:10 p.m. Picking up on what’s clearly becoming a theme, Jackson and Grimm argued about the class size targets used in developing the capital plan. Jackson asked when the DOE and SCA will adopt the class size targets required by the state. Grimm’s answer: Never. “When we look at our targets and factor in the actual utilization of these classrooms … we really do arrive on a citywide level at targets that are 20 or 21,” she said. In other words, Grimm said, classes can get down to the size the state requires even if the city doesn’t build more school seats than it already plans to. Jackson didn’t buy Grimm’s logic. “Those numbers are not acceptable to me as the chair, to advocates, or to parents,” he said. “What they really mean is that children will be in overcrowded classrooms.”

2:20 p.m. Has anyone ever made a joke about Kathleen Grimm’s name? She certainly lived up to it just now when she responded to a question about school construction costs. “It is a very expensive proposition,” Grimm answered. “That’s why we are trying to use every tool we have to address overcrowding in our schools, so we don’t have to rely on capital dollars. We don’t have enough.”

2:25 p.m. Jackson has turned the floor over to his colleagues on the council. Most of them are asking about overcrowding issues in their own districts. Judging from their questions, if overcrowding is only a local problem, as the DOE says it is, it seems to affect a lot of localities.

2:40 p.m. It’s return of the light bulbs here in the Council Chambers! Last week during a hearing on the DOE’s proposed budget reductions, Council Member Lew Fidler said the city should cut costs by switching to energy-efficient light bulbs. Now Fidler said the situation is worse than just wasteful: Many schools don’t even have the fixtures to accept energy-efficient bulbs. Grimm said the current plan provided for fixture modernization but that the initiative had been cut back.

3:05 p.m. The subject has turned to Transportable Classroom Units, otherwise known as trailers. In the current capital plan, the city said it planned to removed all TCUs by 2012. But the proposed plan calls for removing trailers on an ad hoc basis only. Fidler said the change amounts to “waffling” by the DOE and SCA. But Grimm said the agencies are only responding to what principals want. “No TCU will need to be used for classroom space when the projects are completed,” she said. “But if a principal wants to keep them, and we say they’re safe, we’re not going to stop them.”

3:20 p.m. Randi Weingarten is in the house, offering testimony that she said is influenced as much by her new role as the head of the national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, as by her long-term experience in New York. She said the proposed capital plan “thinks small” and could hold New York City back if federal funds become available to stimulate local economies. I’ll have more on this later.

Weingarten’s testimony received a full-on round of applause in the usually staid chamber. One person who didn’t clap, but who wished he could have: Fidler, who said if it weren’t for the rules that bar council members from applauding, he would have been on his feet.

Weingarten also joined the list of people testifying that they are concerned about the SCA’s class size targets. The SCA’s planning “does seem to take aim” at the state’s class size goals, she said.

3:30 p.m.: The only actual New York City public school student in the room has taken the stand. Robert Moore, a 16-year-old student who attends the Bushwick School for Social Justice, testified on behalf of Make the Road New York, a community organization. He said his analysis showed that there aren’t enough ninth-grade seats in Bushwick to hold all of the neighborhood’s graduating eighth graders. “All students should have a choice to go to school in their community,” Moore said.

3:35 p.m. Leonie Haimson, the tireless advocate for smaller class sizes and one of the authors of the Campaign for A Better Capital report, could only address a handful of the issues outlined on her prepared testimony during her allotted time, but that was enough to for her to run through a litany of problems with the capital plan’s methodology, assumptions, and conclusions. She said the DOE and SCA are perpetrating “a huge deception” when they say overcrowding is merely a local problem, citing a survey her organization, Class Size Matters, conducted earlier this year that found that 86 percent of principals say large classes at their schools prevent them from providing a quality of education. Robert Jackson funded that survey.

Asked how much it would cost the city to reduce class sizes to the level CFE requires, Haimson said the answer — many billions of dollars — sounds “very scary.” But she said there are a number of ways to find the funds, from increasing the DOE’s share of the city’s capital spending from 13.8 to 20 percent (in keeping with its historical share) to halving the projected increase in charter school enrollment.

And about the Grimm’s explanation of why schools can still have small classes without the DOE and SCA reducing class size targets, Haimson said, “It makes no sense if you read it [in the capital plan] and it made no sense to me today.”

3:50 p.m. The tail end of this hearing reminds me of how many people have put in long hours trying to crack the problem of overcrowding. Dan Golub, the land use specialist at the Manhattan Borough President’s office, described his office’s two recent reports about how school construction isn’t keeping pace with residential construction. And he emphasized that the economic downturn shouldn’t stop new construction, as scary as it is. “We can’t plan for just the current economic situation,” he said.

4 p.m. There are a few people still hanging around to testify, but most council and audience members have left. I don’t blame them — this has been a bummer of a hearing, with testimony alternating between financial defeatism and complaints that the DOE and SCA aren’t planning to build as many schools as the city needs.