As moratorium lifts, city offers new vision for community role in school space plans

Just weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio was still repeating his pledge to halt new co-locations until a review of the process was complete. That moratorium ended today, when the Department of Education announced eight new space-sharing plans for next year — and a new engagement process that it says will ensure the arrangements have public support.

De Blasio isn’t ceding any of his regulatory authority of the school system. But the new process will include more community meetings and forums than what’s required under the city’s mayoral control regulations, according to an outline of the policy that the department released. It will also give parents and local officials a voice in the city’s review of the method through which classrooms are counted in each school building.

“Over the last decade, communities across the City have been cut out of decision-making processes that undermined the voices of educators and families,” said spokesman Devon Puglia, who last year was charged with defending the city’s controversial space-sharing policies under the Bloomberg administration. “That approach is now gone—and we’re replacing it with one that reflects a genuine desire to engage with communities.”

Puglia said the new policies wouldn’t affect the status of dozens of pending co-locations, some of which could be reversed as early as Friday. But it will be in place for the new colocation plans, which the city’s Panel for Educational Policy would vote on in just 10 weeks.

The co-location plans include three new  programs for students with disabilities and two existing charter schools whose future homes have been disrupted by construction delays. Puglia said more specifics would be available when the plans are submitted for public review later this week.

The proposals essentially mean that de Blasio has lifted a moratorium on co-locations after just a month and a half in office. During the mayoral campaign last year, de Blasio was critical of how Bloomberg handled school space, which was usually freed up by closing low-performing schools and often ended up going to new charter schools.

As recently as this month, de Blasio repeated the pledge.

“There will be a moratorium on closures and colocations,” de Blasio said on Feb. 3 on the Brian Lehrer show. “And the idea is to create a better system of consultation with parents and communities before we decided how to proceed thereafter.”

Space planning for the city’s 1,200 school buildings, whose classrooms get divvied up among more than 1,800 schools, is a complex process. It is regularly adjusting to citywide demographic trends, enrollment shifts at individual schools, and balanced with an administration’s political agenda. Bloomberg’s agenda was to close schools and open new ones, a combination that resulted in dozens of new plans per year that gave affected schools few meaningful opportunities to register concerns about overcrowded classrooms or squeezed access to facilities. Instead, they aired them in emotional testimonies at contentious public hearings that often lasted into the early morning hours.

De Blasio’s agenda is focused on creating space for extra prekindergarten programs, an effort that could eventually affect space-planning in school buildings. None of the proposals set to be released later this week are for pre-K.

Details from the department’s announcement today, which did not include any official policies, indicate that there will be several ways that the new process will be different.

Parents and local officials are being appointed to a working group that is tasked with examining the “Bluebook”, a 370-page document that contains annual space estimates for each school building. School capacity is supposed to be determined through an objective methodology, but critics have argued that it can be manipulated to make room for new schools in buildings even if they don’t really have enough room.

There will also be an attempt to open up the process to more than a single night of feedback.

City regulations require all proposals to be made public for a 45-day period, which includes a public hearing between department officials and school community members. Merely complying was enough under Bloomberg, but the new administration plans to go “above and beyond” the scope of the law. No specific number of additional meetings were offered.

A third and final change is that top education officials will be required to walk through schools that are being considered for new co-location proposals. In recent years, a deputy chancellor began meeting with school officials after a plan had already been proposed, but it was rarely seen to make a difference. 

Whether more feedback and extra walk-throughs have an effect on the substance of school co-location proposals won’t be clear until the city is faced with its first controversial plan. But department officials said that a new commitment to community engagement from de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña was a significant change.

“With new leadership that will listen, it’s a new era for our system,” Puglia said.