The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) wants to thank City Council Speaker Johnson, Finance Committee Chairman Dromm, Education Committee Chairman Treyger and members of the Council for the opportunity to submit testimony in regard to the FY2019-24 Education Capital Plan.
The School Construction Authority (SCA) and the Department of Education (DOE) are to be commended for their hard work in preparing this new five-year Capital Plan. We are all cognizant of the increasing challenges the city faces to keep our aging school buildings running, and we applaud the work being done to make the critical repairs that our buildings so desperately need. Likewise, the quality of work being done to improve working and learning conditions in our schools is appreciated by all. Jobs such as getting a bathroom or water fountain back on line, installing new technology, increasing bandwidth and fixing up playgrounds make a difference in the lives of our students and members.
The Council’s support and partnership have been an indispensable part of that process, and we are grateful for your continued advocacy on behalf of our members, our students and our school communities. In particular, your efforts helped lead the way for the ongoing security camera installations and security door upgrades included within this new plan.
The Capital Plan is an extensive document, and we won’t go through all of it today. Instead, we want to highlight three components that are of particular importance to our members: installing air conditioners in our classrooms, reducing class size, and removing temporary classroom units (TCUs), aka trailers, from our school playgrounds.
A heat wave in early September made the first few weeks of school brutal for students and staff. Temperatures soared into the 90s, which created some truly dangerous temperatures in our buildings. Those extremely hot days were not just an inconvenience. The oppressive heat and humidity unquestionably put students and staff at risk, particularly those with chronic health conditions as well as young children and students with special needs who are more susceptible to environmental stresses.
We received thousands of understandably worried and angry calls and emails from members during those first two weeks. Here are just a handful of the stories our members shared with us:
“A photo of the temperature reading in my classroom shows 88 degrees. It was taken at 7 a.m., before students arrived. It only gets hotter as more bodies are in the room.”
“Most of the windows cannot be opened because they are broken. They have been closed and locked shut. I do not have AC in my classroom, but I bought multiple fans.”
“At times, classroom temperatures are higher than outside. Students are trying to work but are so exhausted by the heat that some just put their heads down and can't engage in the lessons.”
“Children went home due to heat exhaustion and some teachers with heart issues were feverish and ill.”
“A pregnant teacher in the building is getting flushed, light headed and dehydrated.”
“A few students were sent to the nurse due to feeling of nausea and headaches.”
“This is even worse during the June Regents exams as students try to take three hour exams with temperatures soaring.”
“If I let a child or a dog in my car while it was this hot, I’d be arrested, fired, and would be endangering a life.”
“The promise of all schools having air conditioning by 2021 needs to be reconsidered ... the completion date should have been more immediate.”
Hot classrooms have always been a possibility in the first and last weeks of the school year, but the extreme weather brought on by global warming has certainly exacerbated that problem. The scorching temperatures are only getting worse, and heat waves are lasting longer. That means our members are left to put together a patchwork of quick fixes to bring their students relief whenever possible. That approach is inadequate.
Believe it or not, the city has no rules or regulations when it comes to excessive heat. New York City is one of many school districts that have not set a mandated maximum temperature. There is one for cold weather — a classroom cannot fall below 68 degrees — but nothing for heat.
The Capital Plan includes an allocation of $284 million dollars to outfit classrooms with air conditioners. It’s a much-needed initiative, and we applaud Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Education for their advocacy on this issue.
We also recognize and appreciate the complexity of this work. Many of our older buildings cannot handle the increased electrical load from air conditioning units until they receive significant wiring upgrades. The investment and manpower will be substantial. We strongly support the Mayor’s efforts in this regard.
Still, what’s lacking in this Capital Plan? Specifics about how the project will proceed. For example, the Plan notes that thousands of classrooms have been outfitted with air conditioners, without specifying where that work has been done. More importantly, the Plan does not specify how, where and when the project will move forward from here.
Our members are clamoring for news about what classrooms are slated to receive AC units and when to expect that work. At a minimum, a draft plan must be released for the remaining work. We respectfully ask for a report that outlines which classrooms are on the list to receive AC units and a timetable for that work. This plan should be made public to schools.
What’s more, the priority must be to get most of this work done as early in the new fiscal year as possible. One of our greatest responsibilities is the safety of our schools’ occupants, and we should make every effort to accelerate and expand this initiative. Also, there may be funding left in the last year of this current plan, and the plan and schedule for that work should be made public as well.
In the interim, we are recommending to our members that they should be proactive and gather information about which rooms have or don’t have AC units. We are also asking them to document their situations with temperature activity logs when the next heat wave occurs, and meet with their Principals to alert them about the issue. It may be the middle of winter now, but spring will come and so will the heat. Let’s get ahead of this while there’s still time.
There are 1.135 million students coming through the doors of the city’s public schools this year, and as with every year, overcrowding is a fact of life in neighborhoods across this city. The growth we’re seeing is rapid and ongoing.
Our review of this Capital Plan tells us that the new capacity program is perhaps the largest the School Construction Authority has ever undertaken, with 56,917 new seats slated to be built in 88 buildings. That work, combined with components of the previous capital plan, would potentially mean 83,000 new seats.
More specifically, Queens High Schools, which have been seriously overcrowded for years, will receive the greatest number of new seats in the draft plan — 8,164. District 20 in Brooklyn, also severely overcrowded for years, will receive 6,352 new seats, the second highest number of new seats. District 25 in Queens is projected to receive 4,862 new seats. District 10 in the Bronx, another perennially overcrowded district, is slated for 3,336 new seats. We expect additional students to pour in over the next five years. The city must continuously review anticipated growth and stay on top of what will be needed to accommodate this growth.
These additional seats are good news for our school communities, especially where overcrowding continues to have an adverse effect. By percentage, the most overcrowded districts across multiple grade levels are Districts 20, Brooklyn, followed by Districts 25 and 24, both in Queens. That should come as no surprise, as these districts have been chronically over enrolled for many years. At the middle school level, two districts are showing capacities over 100 percent in their middle schools: Districts 20 and 25. District 24 is on the cusp at 99 percent utilization, so there is no capacity for growth there, either.
At the high school level, most of Queens is overcrowded and there is serious overcrowding in high schools in two Brooklyn districts. There are five Queens districts with overcrowding: Districts 24, 25, 26, 28 and 30. And there are two districts in Brooklyn with serious high school overcrowding — Districts 20 and 22 — with utilization rates of 149 percent and 134 percent, respectively. High schools on Staten Island — District 31 — are also overcrowded.
More specifically, a review of the publicly-available data shows us that:
- District 20 is at 133 percent capacity at the elementary level, 116 percent at the PS/IS level, 103 percent at the MS level, and 149 percent at the high school level.
- District 25 is at 109 percent capacity at the middle school level, 129 percent at the elementary level, 135 percent at the high school level and 103 percent at the IS/HS level.
- District 24 elementary schools are at 122 percent, middle school are at 99 percent, PS/IS schools are 125 percent, high school are at 112 percent and IS/HS 101 percent.
There are 18 districts with overcrowding at the elementary level and the PS/IS schools:
- District 6 in Manhattan is overcrowded at the PS/IS level;
- Districts 8, 9, 10, and 11 at both the elementary and PS/IS levels and District 12 at the elementary level;
- Districts 13 at the PS/IS level, District 15 at the elementary level and Districts 20, 21 and 22 at both the elementary and PS/IS levels in Brooklyn;
- Districts 24, 26 and 28 at both the elementary and PS/IS levels and Districts 25, 27 and 30 at the elementary levels in Queens; and
- District 31 at both the elementary and PS/IS levels in Staten Island.
What’s more, some districts are projecting an increase in enrollments over the next five to seven years. Those include Districts 20, 21, 25, 26, 28 and 31, as well as high schools in Queens and on Staten Island.
It’s also important to note some districts expect substantial growth in housing over the life of this Capital Plan including District 2, which expects to grow by 24,672 housing units, and District 14, which expects to grow by 13,124 units. Everywhere you look around the five boroughs, new residential construction is underway. Much changes from year to year, but we must be mindful of how these changes affect our schools.
District 30 is where the city expects the new Amazon headquarters to be built by 2024. Overcrowding is already an issue in that district and it is projected to receive 3,128 new seats. It appears likely that number was allocated before any impact from that new construction was factored in. That’s because over 19,703 new housing units were already expected in the district by 2024.
All of this is to say that it is critically important that everyone remain mindful of keeping these new capacity projects on or ahead of schedule, especially the additional elementary school seats in districts where large numbers of new apartments are being built. Even a handful of new apartments can put a strain on a neighborhood public school, to say nothing of when hundreds of new apartments become occupied. The effects can be especially harmful in schools that are already maxed to capacity and don’t have space for expansion. The more that can be done to anticipate these changes and mitigate overcrowding, the better.
What’s more, just as we are advocating for more information about the AC initiative, the same holds true for capacity projects — the more data that SCA and the DOE can provide, the better. The same also holds true when it comes to other projects within this new Plan. One example: $150 million has been allocated for class size reduction, which is terrific, but the plan does not include information on any potential schools.
Temporary classrooms (trailers)
We wholeheartedly support the $180 million allocated for removing trailers — temporary classroom units — from school yards and $50 million to restore the playgrounds where the TCUs now live. Both are smart investments. We are disappointed, however, that the city has failed to make more progress. Many of these “temporary” units are now 10 to 20 years old, far beyond their expected service life, and they have chronic moisture problems impossible to completely mitigate. These units should be taken out of service immediately as they post a health hazard.
Seventy-four of the 170 remaining TCUs are slated for removal during this plan’s time period, but what about the remaining 96? If the new capacity in this plan will meet the future capacity needs of the system (and it is not clear if the 56,917 new seats plus the other much smaller capacity program components will do that), why then can’t the remaining 96 TCU’s dependent on new capacity be removed? And, of the 96, if there are no capacity issues at those schools, why wouldn’t restoring outdoor space for students be a priority? The publically available data on the TCU project is incomplete so it’s impossible to evaluate the project. Our schools would like to see a specific plan for the removal of all of the TCU’s now.
FINAL THOUGHTS Again, we commend the work that went in to developing this new five-year Capital Plan, and we support efforts to mitigate these three issues and the many others included within the report. We are proud of the work that we do in collaboration with the Department of Education, the School Construction Authority and the City Council to improve our school facilities.
However, we want to stress the narrative and appendices in the report fail to clearly tell the story. While they inform many important programs, the information and data provided are insufficient to track the projects’ goals, and project- and program-level spending. Clear and consistent benchmarks are lacking for the cost, a timeline and the program’s goals. We ask the city to commit to a greater level of transparency in informing the public about capital projects for our schools.
In closing, the UFT remains grateful to the City Council for the opportunity to offer our testimony on the proposed Capital Plan amendment, and we look forward to working with these committees in the months ahead.