Few tough questions on school construction at council hearing

City Council members found much to like in the school-construction plan discussed at a hearing Tuesday.

The $12.8 billion capital-budget plan aims to add thousands of new classroom seats over the next five years, while creating new space for pre-kindergarten, driving down class sizes, removing outdoor classroom trailers, and even beautifying some bathrooms.

Still, the council members poked some holes in the plan, asking a Department of Education official when, where, and how those ideas will be executed — especially considering some of projects count on state funds that must still be approved by voters. But, in a sign of the close alignment between the new mayor and the council, no one questioned the administration’s decision to redirect $210 million from charter-school construction to pre-K expansion.

Other projects in the five-year capital plan attracted more attention, including plans to install long-awaited new boilers in hurricane-damaged schools, to upgrade middle school science labs, and to revise the way available school space is calculated. Here are some highlights.

Adding school space

The city’s plan calls for 38,700 new useable school seats — the bulk to relieve overcrowding, with the rest to grow pre-K and reduce class sizes.

Daniel Dromm, the education committee chair, wanted to know which crowded schools would get some of the 4,900 new seats intended to bring down class sizes. He also wondered what the department will do if state voters do not approve the $800 million bond act, part of which the city is counting on for the class size reductions.

Kathleen Grimm, the department’s deputy chancellor for operations, said a “multi-divisional task force” would decide how those seats are divvied up, and that the situation would be “unhappy” if that state money was not granted.

Some speakers took issue with the number of new seats, noting that the department says about 16,500 more slots are needed to meet demand, but cannot be created due to limited funding.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, said after the hearing that even the number of seats the city says it needs but can’t afford is suspect.

“They are not being honest,” she said. “They have never done a transparent needs analysis in more than 10 years.”

Removing classroom trailers

Today, more than 7,100 students attend class in trailers that were built as a short-term fix for overcrowded schools. The city’s plan promises to get rid of those roughly 320 trailers and move the students into newly created or freed-up classrooms inside buildings. (State lawmakers want the bond-act money to be available for that purpose.)

But the city has long promised to do away with the trailers, and some speakers wanted to know when exactly they would be removed and where all the students would go.

Grimm called the trailers a “complicated problem,” and said they would be cleared out in phases beginning with those in worst shape. But she raised eyebrows by suggesting that the trailers could potentially be repurposed for use as pre-K classrooms and that some principals don’t mind trailers that are in good condition.

“I’ve never met a principal who wanted those portables,” Dromm said.

Other highlights

  • City officials promised that the 33 schools still stuck with temporary boilers after Hurricane Sandy will have new ones “in construction” by the end of the year.
  • Grimm said a recently formed working group of parents, educators, and others met this month to review the way available space in schools is calculated. Councilman Mark Levine predicted that if the group helps establish a more realistic measure of school space and overcrowding, the city is likely to find it needs to create many seats than it has planned for.
  • The department’s plan sets aside $50 million for middle school science lab upgrade, which Grimm said follows a push by the previous administration to upgrade high school labs. Some council members questioned whether all high schools now have sufficient science facilities.
  • Another $50 million would fund a pilot program to “improve the attractiveness of our school bathrooms,” according to Grimm’s prepared remarks. Not all schools would get the upgrades.
  • Dromm noted that lawmakers have proposed adding alarms to school doors to prevent students from leaving school undetected. But Grimm said that is not a “prudent use of funds,” and suggested that school staff must take responsibility for all students.