The agency responsible for figuring out where the city’s kids go is the School Construction Authority, a slow-moving outfit that relies on a murky stew of formulas that take into account capacity and enrollment projections. It’s becoming apparent that these models neither do the job nor allow for the huge demographic shift that’s going on. For starters, those enrollment projections, which the DoE compiles with the consultancy Grier Partnership, are extrapolated from birth rates and the number of kids who move from one grade to the next. Grier does not count housing starts in a meaningful way. Although the DoE maintains that it factors in new building (and other influences) later in the decision-making process, it has apparently missed the 32 condo towers that have encircled P.S. 116. “It’s extraordinary. Thirty-plus buildings and no capacity added to the school. What is there to do?” asks City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who constantly fields calls from fed-up constituents. (Besides, as a WNYC story reported last year, the DoE has been known to make mistakes in its modeling, miscounting principals’ offices as classrooms or failing to include administrative spaces for such extras as gifted programs.) The DoE characterizes the “growth picture” for P.S. 199 and P.S. 116 as “mixed and modest, with both schools experiencing fluctuation up and down over the past few years.”
On top of all that, the city looks at entire districts, not catchments, to make these decisions. No matter how crowded a school gets, if it sits in a district that, on average, seems underfilled, money won’t be forthcoming for changes. Oddly enough, District 3, where P.S. 199 is located and which is composed mostly of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, has been projected to see a nearly 7 percent drop in student population between 2005 and 2010. (Did nobody count all those strollers?) “Somehow the numbers are crunched in such a way that we don’t get money allotted,” says Sandra Levy, a member of the school’s Leadership Team. “And because we are a catchment, anyone [within the limits] can register and we have to find a place for them. It ends up very detrimental.” So in the case of P.S. 199, there are no plans to build or expand. According to the DoE, the school has space for 621 students, and it has 587 right now, so there’s no problem. And when parents reared up to ask Joel Klein about the issue at a recent community-education-council meeting, they say his answer was succinct: “Send your kids to private school.” (Klein’s office flatly denies the remark, calling it “completely inconsistent with his values and obvious commitment to public education.”)
So now what? Elsewhere in the country—in Florida and Georgia, for instance—developers have to pay impact fees when they build houses so new infrastructure can be created to serve the growing public. But no such policy exists here. School catchments could be redrawn to better distribute the population. But you know what would happen then: “If [owners] have property in a desirable catchment … they’d certainly fight it if they wouldn’t be able to go to that school,” says one parent. Can you imagine how they would squawk if, redirected to a less desirable school, their apartments suddenly lost that extra 10 percent of their worth?
Developers could be asked to add schools to their construction projects, but there’s been little movement in that direction. (Sheldon Solow recently agreed to add a school within his Con Edison project to take some pressure off P.S. 116, but its 650 seats will hardly accommodate all the new kids.) An annex has been built here and there—Tribeca’s P.S. 234 just opened one—but “what you see are stopgap measures in an attempt to deal with the building boom,” says Garodnick. “What we need is a long-term plan.”
For now, that plan is even more stopgap. At P.S. 199, only two rooms remain available for expansion: the music room and the remaining art studio. Most likely, they’re done for, since next year, the school will need two more classrooms for first and fourth grades. And the condos are still being built. “By the time these people move in,” says Mallin, “the school will not meet their expectations, simply because it’s overcrowded. At the rate it’s going, by 2009, there will be no classrooms left.”