Testimony on school construction

Testimony of Richard Farkas, UFT VP of Middle Schools, before New York City Council

Good morning Chairmen Jackson and Weprin, and members of the City Council. I am Richard Farkas, vice president of junior high and intermediate schools for the United Federation of Teachers.

As an educator, I could not be more passionate about eliminating overcrowded conditions in our public schools. Parents and teachers know all too well that school overcrowding just makes it more difficult for kids to get the education they deserve. We place New York City’s children at a severe disadvantage when their classes are too large and their schools are filled past their capacity.

These large class sizes and overcrowded schools, are not solely caused by a failure to plan during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, it is also the faults of the last capital plan.

Recently, the Department of Education has gone into communities and created conflicts among schools all fighting space. By pitting schools and communities against each other for space, the DOE is denying students their rights to a quality education. Our children are shortchanged now and will continue to be if the five-year capital plan falls short of addressing these problems.

For example, recently in District 2 we have seen dozens of families of children eligible for kindergarten in September of this year advised by the DOE that their children do not have a place in their respectively zoned schools. The DOE has told parents their children are on waiting lists for their zoned schools without explaining the procedure for devising the lists or for selecting which students are selected.

In District 3, P.S. 185/208 has been pitted against P.S. 242, which houses Harlem Link, the Future Leaders Institute and P.S. 242, for valuable space. P.S. 185 has been forced to give up space for a Harlem Link expansion program.

Public School 185 will now face increased overcrowding and lose valuable space, including art rooms and dance space, to make room for the expansion. P.S. 185 is the only pre-school through second grade school in Harlem, traditionally students would graduate into P.S. 208. The capital plan does not address the needs for these schools to develop.

The current capital plan doesn't meet current or projected future class space needs, given increasing enrollment. As a result, the Department of Education will not be in compliance with the Contract for Excellence if the proposed capital plan is approved. This is especially disturbing in light of state mandated class size targets.

We fought long and hard to win the Contract for Excellence, and in our view this capital plan provides for insufficient additional classroom space and will not enable reduction of class sizes in accordance with the Contract for Excellence agreement.

We are strongly advocating for restoring “lost rooms” for specialized instruction, cultural enrichment and physical education in the DOE’s construction and capacity planning. These so-called “cluster rooms” were not adequately planned, and overcrowding resulted in students losing their facilities for art, music, gym and science laboratories.

According to a report released by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity yesterday, based on 2007-2008 data, overcrowding is still a pervasive problem.

  • There are 391 school buildings with a total enrollment of 381,582 students that are overcrowded with utilization rates greater than 100%.
  • The total enrollment in public schools was over 1,042,000 and approximately 37% of all students attended school in an overcrowded building.
  • There are many severe cases of overcrowding, including 85 school buildings with utilization rates between 125% and 150%, and 28 schools had utilization rates over 150%.

Additionally, there is a persistent problem with overcrowding affecting our most vulnerable high-need students.

  • According to the CFE report, 25% of SINI/SRAP schools in 2007-08 were overcrowded.
  • If more of these challenged schools had the benefits of smaller class size, we would likely see more of them removed from the SINI/SRAP list.

According to the CFE report, there are 51 schools facing severe overcrowding that the DOE should take immediate steps to combat overcrowding in. However, there is no strategy in the current Capital Plan to alleviate the overcrowding in schools that need the most relief.

In Queens, there are 57,545 students enrolled in overcrowded hi school buildings, the highest number citywide. However, there is only one additional high school planned for Queens in the Capital Plan.

While the entire proposed five year capital plan has only 25,000 new seats, it was recently revealed that the DOE plans to create 100,000 seats for charter schools by 2012.

The plan states that there is potential for new charter schools to help mitigate enrollment growth. However, several of the charters cited in the plan are in neighborhoods with available capacity.

Communities in desperate need of space are not properly being evaluated as part of the capital plan.

To fully develop their potential, every student should be exposed to instruction in vitally important subjects such as art, music, drama, foreign language, health, technology and home and career skills; we cannot deliver that education if they are forced to learn in portable buildings, annexes and mini-schools.

Indicators show that enrollment is projected to drop in a select few districts; enrollment in almost all other districts in the city will rise. Our schools need resources to lower class sizes to give our children the tools they need to succeed.

Advocating for and protecting a child’s right to learn, is crucial. We are here asking the City Council to stand up for children and make the capital plan do what it must do: provide the space and opportunity for our children to achieve their highest potential in school facilities that meet all of their instructional needs.

Thank you.

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