Testimony before the New York City Council Committees on Finance and Education
The United Federation of Teachers wants to thank the City Council for devoting its time and energy to reviewing the proposed education capital plan separate and apart from the expense budget. Providing a quality education isn’t just about ensuring teachers are given a solid curriculum and classroom resources; the buildings themselves have to be safe and provide a nurturing environment where any one of us would want to work and send our kids. Students and educators deserve classrooms with ample lighting, functional heat and air conditioning, and up-to-date technology. They also deserve classrooms that can accommodate small class sizes and hallways free from overcrowding.
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. One of our many collaborative projects is the creation of school-based health clinics in two of our amazing Community Learning Schools. These clinics will even include vision clinics — the first of their kind in New York State. Meaningful projects like these can have immediate benefits in the lives of our students and their families. We hope additional state and local funding will allow for more of these important projects in the years to come.
We recognize the complex nature of designing and implementing a capital plan for a school system as large and diverse as New York City’s. Many of the city’s aging school buildings require a high level of maintenance. Of course, there are visible signs of this work when contractors put up scaffolding to replace windows and roofs, but most of the work goes unseen. Seen or not, however, every bit of it is vital. For example, just this past year, the billion-dollar multi-year effort to replace lights laden with toxic PCB chemicals in over 750 schools was completed ahead of schedule thanks to the commitment of Mayor de Blasio, the City Council and the hard work by the DOE and School Construction Authority. Projects like these improve the lives of our students.
We offer this testimony today to urge the City Council to support increased investment in the capital plan, to address critical maintenance needs and keep modernization projects on track. What’s more, investments in additional education initiatives — such as the aforementioned school-based health centers — must remain a priority.
That work begins with making headway on smaller individual repair projects that will make an outsize improvement in children’s lives. If you talk to teachers, they’ll tell you that targeted quality-of-life improvements and facility enhancements — fixing a bathroom stall, a broken classroom heater or a blinking overhead light — can make an immediate difference. Sometimes it only takes something as simple as replacing a group of water-damaged ceiling tiles, or repairing playground equipment or a broken water fountain to make kids feel that you’re investing in them. Even sprucing up a dark hallway with a brighter, warmer paint color can make a school a more inviting place to be. There’s a direct relationship between the condition of a building and how safe and nurturing the school’s environment feels. We are sensitive to the use of capital funding and its restrictions so we urge the council, in cooperation with the Mayor, to increase the maintenance funding to help address these small-but-important problems. We also urge the DOE and School Construction Authority to start developing capital programs that can address these quality of life issues. The current upgrade of student bathrooms in the current capital plan is an important comparable initiative.
On a larger level, we have to keep chronic overcrowding and stubborn class size issues in mind. There are a number of indicators that need to be addressed as part of the oversight of this year’s capital plan amendment. Perhaps most pressing is the need to manage and accommodate the thousands of new students that we can expect to come through our doors in the coming years. It seems everywhere you look around the five boroughs, new residential construction is underway in every shape and form.
Overcrowded schools and rising class sizes are already a fact of life in neighborhoods across this city, as you well know. As the city moves forward with its capital planning, additional elementary school capacity needs to be addressed in every neighborhood where these residential projects take place. It only takes a dozen or so new apartments to put additional burdens on a neighborhood public school, to say nothing of these massive projects that include hundreds and hundreds of new apartments. The effects can be especially harmful in schools that are already maxed to capacity and don’t have room to add additional classes.
The growth we’re seeing is rapid and ongoing, and the assumption is that the situation will worsen with each new school year. Every residential project will have an impact on its community — are those impacts being considered and tracked? We assume that developers are required to include school seats in their plans when mitigation is needed but is the City speaking with developers about the possible inclusion of school seats for projects even where there is no required mitigation? We understand how difficult it is to locate sites for new schools but we urge the City to be very expansive in looking at locations for new seats
When it comes to school capacity and planning for these new developments, the more data that the DOE and School Construction Authority can provide, the better. Some insight into how a potential school site is evaluated to determine if it can work for a new school would also be helpful. It’s also vital that we make every effort to proactively manage school overcrowding as much as possible to mitigate large class sizes and the loss of instructional spaces such as labs, music and art rooms, rooms for occupational and physical therapy, and guidance offices. The council can be a significant help in that matter; each member knows about the new construction in their district, and can help ensure that seat projects in that district reflect the growing needs.
A lot more work will also be necessary over the next two years in order for to fully realize the seats already included in this latest capital plan. For example, of the 44,300 new seats allocated for approximately 84 different buildings, more than 20,000 of those seats and 39 of those sites have yet to be identified. What’s more, there are still many of the 8,200 pre-Kindergarten seats, and 4,900 seats identified specifically for class size reduction, that also need to be planned. It also remains to be seen whether or not funding will be allocated for over 38,000 remaining and unfunded seats identified by the Mayor earlier this year.
In our testimony to the council in February, we offered strong support for the creation of a working group to study issues involved in school planning, seat development and overcrowding. The capital plan is obviously an important document that does contain a great deal of important information, and it requires a colossal effort to put together. However, parents and teachers would benefit from having more school-specific information. A working group could perhaps tackle these issues as part of its efforts. It can also look at whether there are other models for school sites nationally and speak with the development community about potential opportunities. During that February hearing, we also recommended that the city provide additional resources to the School Construction Authority for additional staff in each borough to help identify sites for schools.
This capital plan amendment also proposes investments of $130 million and 600 additional seats for Pre-K, $654 million for technology enhancements, mainly to increase internet bandwidth, as well as safety and security projects such as the installation of digital video surveillance systems like those already outfitted for nearly 1,100 schools. We support these projects. We are likewise encouraged by the steady removal of temporary classrooms, though according to this latest amendment, only 109 of the remaining 255 are slated for removal.
As we look ahead, we would like to work with the DOE and School Construction Authority to consider additional interior enhancement programs for school buildings, such as continuing the bathroom upgrade program, making electrical upgrades to allow schools to install air conditioning, and developing a program of classroom modernizations. In fact, according to the latest capital plan amendment, the facility restructuring allocations include an additional $82 million, which could in part help address the need for additional school-based health centers. The benefits of these projects and quality of life programs will be felt by students and teachers immediately and will begin to address the inadequate interior environments that exist in too many of our school buildings.
We should note that the UFT’s Health and Safety department is closely monitoring lead pipe mitigation and the potable water sampling protocol for lead concentration in our school buildings. As you are no doubt aware, thanks to new state regulations, the DOE is now mandated to test for lead in the water at all public schools. In schools where lead has been detected, taps have been turned off so that pipes and fittings can be replaced, and letters have been sent home to parents detailing the situation.
We recommend to our chapter leaders that they do walkthroughs of their buildings to ensure that any identified sinks or fountains are not used for drinking until proper repairs are made, and monitor the DOE to ensure that protocols to flush old pipes are being followed.
With the lighting replacement program completed, perhaps some of those additional resources and monitoring could be transferred to the lead pipes issue. We also recommend that the DOE and School Construction Authority examine how they could accelerate their work replacing the old boilers that burn heavy fuel, which will not only save a significant amount of money, but will also have an enormously positive effect on the environment.
The UFT wishes to thank the council for this opportunity to offer testimony on the capital plan amendment, and we look forward to working with the council in the months ahead.