scanning shifts

Only one school campus has asked to have metal detectors added or removed since New York City created guidelines for requesting changes

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A member of the New York Police Department visits a classroom at Queens Explorers Elementary School.

More than a year after New York City created a formal procedure for principals to ask for metal detectors to be added or removed from their buildings, almost none have.

Since the guidelines were established in July 2016, just one school campus has asked for a change in how often existing scanners are used in their building, according to officials, who said the request was approved. None have asked for new scanners to be added, they said.

Critics say principals may find the procedure too cumbersome — it involves consulting a long list of school stakeholders before submitting a written request — or they may worry about being blamed if violence breaks out after they ask to get rid of scanners. Others may be content with their metal detectors, or they may not know how to request changes under the new guidelines.

“I just don’t really feel like schools and communities are clear or have been notified — or that there have been actual, clear conversations with them around the new procedure,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Urban Youth Collaborative, a student-led social justice organization that has pushed for the removal of metal detectors.

Across the city, 91 school buildings have metal detectors, according to the education department. (Only middle and high schools use scanners; when elementary schools are housed in buildings with metal detectors they use separate entrances.)

The total includes the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, the Bronx high school where a student fatally stabbed a classmate in September. The city installed metal detectors at the school after the attack.

In 2015, a school-safety task force convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio said that even as school crime dropped by 48 percent over the previous decade, not a single permanent metal detector had been removed from a school. The report also noted that no formal guidelines existed for adding or removing scanners.

The following year, the education and police departments established such guidelines.

They say that principals who are interested in installing or removing metal detectors — or changing how many days per week existing scanners are used — must first consult a range of stakeholders. Those stakeholders include: members of the school safety committee and leadership team, the school’s union representative, teachers, students, parents, safety agents, and the local superintendent.

If all the groups agree to a change, then the principal must submit a written request. The police and education departments will then review the school’s safety data, conduct a “scanning assessment,” and meet with the principal and superintendent before deciding whether to grant the request.

Some critics say the policy makes requesting changes too difficult.

Jill Bloomberg, principal of Park Slope Collegiate in Brooklyn, has called for the city to remove metal detectors from her building. But she shares a campus with three other schools — and not all the principals feel the same as her, she said.

“The default goes to the principal who wants to keep the metal detectors,” she said.

An education department spokeswoman said principals in shared buildings do not have to come to unanimous decisions about metal detectors. However, the guidelines say principals in the same building must discuss any proposed changes, and that the decision to request changes should be made “collectively.”

The spokeswoman also said that principals were informed of the new guidelines in the education department’s weekly email address to school leaders. They were also invited to attend training sessions to learn about the policy, though the spokeswoman could not say how many school leaders actually attended.

It’s possible some principals have asked for changes without submitting a formal request.

At a recent city council hearing, Councilman Rafael Salamanca of the Bronx said the former principal of Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation — the site of September’s classroom stabbing — had previously asked for metal detectors to be installed in the building. Education department officials said no formal request had been made.

“The events in my district demonstrate the process needs reformed,” Salamanca said in an emailed statement, referring to the process for requesting that metal detectors be added or removed.

Even when schools do not request changes, the police and education departments say they conduct an annual data review of every school with metal detectors to determine whether they are still needed.

Since 2016, the city has changed how often two schools use metal detectors. And three buildings — including the Bronx high school — have started using metal detectors.

While some principals may be unaware of the process for removing metal detectors or worried about the risks, others may want to keep theirs in place.

Evan Schwartz, principal of Alfred E. Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the Bronx, said he has worked in schools with metal detectors for most of his career. In his current building, which multiple schools share, more than 1,000 students stream through metal detectors every morning in a process he described as quick and orderly.

When another principal in the building suggested getting rid of the scanners a few years ago, Schwartz objected.

“It makes it safer for everybody,” he said.

tabling SALT

Here’s how the Republican tax plan could threaten New York’s education funding

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.

Republican lawmakers in Washington appear poised to approve sweeping tax legislation, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has dubbed an “economic death blow” to the state.

That blow, advocates say, could punch a hole in school budgets.

Schools across New York are already shortchanged billions of dollars, according to school-funding advocates, even as the state faces a $4.4 billion budget gap. The tax plan, if approved, has the potential to divert even more state and local funding from schools.

“I’ve been dealing with the state budget for more than 30 years and this is as volatile and uncertain as anything I can recall,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The House and Senate must still combine their tax bills and pass a final version. Below is a guide to some of the worst-case scenarios for New York schools if that happens.

“Downward pressure” on local taxes

A provision of the tax plan would sharply reduce state and local tax (often called SALT) deductions a proposal that would hit high-tax states like New York hardest. The average SALT deduction in New York is $22,169, according to a report form the Governor Finance Officers Association, using data from 2015.

Advocates worry that voters whose tax burdens rise without the deductions will be less inclined to sign off on increases to their local school board budgets, which voters approve in most parts of the state. In New York City, school funding may be more insulated because residents do not vote on a budget.

However, the city could feel pressure to offset the lost SALT deductions by lowering local income taxes — a move that could shrink budgets across city agencies, including the education department.

“It stands to reason that there will be downward pressure for us to reduce our local taxes, which in turn would create less revenue for city services,” said New York City spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein in an email.

Flight of the super taxpayers

A small number of super-wealthy New Yorkers help keep the state and city governments afloat.

In New York City, about 25,000 families contribute more than 40 percent of the city’s personal income-tax revenue, according to the most recent figures analyzed by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Their tax burdens could balloon without the SALT deductions, spurring a rush to lower-tax locales. While some experts said a mass exodus is highly unlikely, in a district where approximately 57 percent of school funding comes from the city budget, any significant loss of tax revenue could strike a serious blow to school funding.

“People who live on Park Avenue are not going to move to Alabama to pay lower taxes,” said Michael Borges, executive director of the New York State Association of School Business Officials. “But they may move to Scarsdale because they don’t have to pay a city income tax.”

A three-way “tidal wave of disaster”

Lost local revenue isn’t the only way school budgets could take a hit. In fact, it could be part of a triple whammy.

The tax plan would leave the federal government with a gaping $1.4 trillion deficit. Experts expect lawmakers may eventually plug the hole by slashing spending on healthcare and possibly other programs like education.

“It may result in lower federal funding for everything,” said George Sweeting, deputy director at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “If that happens, that would have an impact on federal funding for New York City.”

Still, school districts only get a fraction of their funding from the federal government. In New York City, federal money accounts for just 6 percent of school spending. (By contrast, 37 percent of the city’s education funds come from the state.)

However, federal spending cuts could have an indirect impact on New York’s education funding. If Washington provides less healthcare funding, for instance, New York could have to pick up the tab — creating a ripple effect, where it would have less to spend on schools.

The federal pressure would come at the same time New York is already facing a $4.4 billion budget deficit. Officials from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office say the tax plan would be a blow to New York — but they also insist that Cuomo is committed to funding education.

Still, schools are staring at a “loss of federal aid, a loss of state aid, and a loss of local revenue,” Borges said. “It’s like a tidal wave of disaster.”

An under-the-radar change would cause “significant harm”

Finally, a little-noticed bond issue in the tax plan could cause New York schools pain.

Congressional Republicans would remove provisions that help schools borrow money for school construction projects, according to a letter signed by Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The loss would “significantly harm districts’ finances,” it reads.

This measure would have a devastating impact on schools, school districts, local taxpayers and, most significantly, our students,” the letter continues. “That impact would be felt most dramatically by districts in poverty; in other words, the districts that would be hurt most are those that can least afford it.”

in the zone

Denver Public Schools proposes changes to how elementary school boundaries work in two areas of the city — for different reasons

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders at Whittier ECE-8 School sit in a line on the playground.

Elementary school boundaries in two different parts of Denver would change under a proposal that’s set to be among the first voted on later this month by a new school board.

It calls for students living in the Green Valley Ranch and Gateway neighborhoods in far northeast Denver to be part of two new enrollment zones, and students living in Five Points, Cole, Whittier and City Park West in north-central Denver to be part of another new zone.

Enrollment zones are essentially big school boundaries with several schools inside them. Students are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools but not necessarily the school closest to where they live, or their first choice. That has led to complaints from some families in zones with lots of students but not many excess seats, such as the zone in the booming Stapleton neighborhood.

Denver Public Schools officials said they’ve taken into account lessons learned from the district’s 11 other zones in designing the new ones they’re proposing. Students in the new zones would have “enhanced priority” to get into the schools nearest to them.

“We’re trying to take the best of previous zones and some of the benefits of boundaries” and blend them together with this proposal, Brian Eschbacher, the district’s executive director of planning and enrollment services, told the school board at a work session Thursday.

The reasons for creating these new zones, officials said, have to do with enrollment.

The far northeast is one of the few regions of the city with vacant land ripe for developers to build more single-family houses, which are desirable commodities in Denver’s hot real estate market. One developer, CP Bedrock, is planning to build near Pena Boulevard nearly 1,800 housing units, which the district predicts will yield hundreds of new students.

About 1,100 of those units are in the boundary of just one elementary school, Lena Archuleta Elementary, which is already full with more than 500 students, Eschbacher said.

The district’s proposal is to create two enrollment zones on either side of Tower Road. Each would have three schools in it. The zone to the west of Tower Road would encompass Archuleta, SOAR at Green Valley Ranch and KIPP Northeast. The zone to the east would encompass Omar D. Blair, Highline Academy Northeast and Florida Pitt Waller.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

District planners considered redrawing the current boundaries to accommodate the new CP Bedrock development and the thousands of other new housing units planned for the area, Eschbacher said. But that wouldn’t align with the district’s philosophy that pressing families to research their options and choose the school that best fits their child will make that child more successful, nor would it leave wiggle room for any future housing development, he said.

In north-central Denver, the enrollment pressures are the exact opposite. The gentrifying neighborhoods have lost so many students that there are about 800 more elementary school seats than elementary school students living there, Eschbacher said.

The school board voted last year to shutter one low-performing school in the area, Gilpin Montessori, and not replace it due to declining enrollment. The district created a temporary enrollment zone to give Gilpin students priority this year at several nearby schools.

The proposal would create a permanent zone encompassing four schools: Whittier, Wyatt Academy, University Prep Arapahoe Street and Cole Arts and Science Academy.

Credit: Denver Public Schools

Two other schools that are physically located within the zone boundary would not be part of the zone, Eschbacher said. One school, Polaris Elementary, is the district’s magnet school for highly gifted students. The other, the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, is located on a busy thoroughfare in the same building that houses the district’s headquarters.

Because of construction in the area, it would be impossible for yellow school buses to service the school, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova explained. The school is currently an all-choice charter without yellow bus service. If it were to be included in a zone, the district would have to provide transportation to zone students choosing to attend.

If the zone is created, district officials said they would re-evaluate including the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School once construction in the area is completed.

The district has in the past successfully used enrollment zones as a way to compel families to participate in school choice, and as a way to integrate schools, which has had mixed results. At Thursday’s meeting, Cordova said zones also allow for a more even distribution of students who enroll mid-year. Highly mobile students often end up at boundary schools and not at all-choice charters, she said. In a zone, all schools must reserve seats for mid-year arrivals.

“We believe in equity,” she said. “Research shows late-arrival kids … need more supports.”

All three proposed zones would feature a mix of district-run and charter schools. Because officials predict the zones will have more seats than students, Cordova said no family should feel forced to attend a type of school they don’t like. Because of that excess capacity, officials said it’s likely all zone students would get into their first-choice schools.

The seven-member school board, which includes three newly elected members, is scheduled to vote Dec. 21 on whether to create the zones. The school choice process starts in February.