Ronn Jordan's daughter, Samantha, was supposed to attend kindergarten this fall at PS 56, two blocks from the family's apartment in the Norwood section of the Bronx. But because of severe overcrowding, district officials decided to bus the five-year-olds to a school in distant Crotona.
Jordan never fancied himself an activist, but now he is spending his summer vacation, with other members of the Northwest Bronx Education Committee, collecting thousands of petition signatures in the hopes of getting Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to come speak with the community about school overcrowding and long-neglected repairs.
Parents from Queens District 24, the most crowded in the city, are fed up, too. The school yard of PS 19 in Corona is so jammed with portable classrooms that, as one parent says, it looks like a “trailer park.”
These are only two examples of a crisis that has been documented by a host of government agencies, fiscal watchdogs and education advocates. Still, no long-term solution is in sight.
The mayor and City Council sprinkled a little election-year fairy dust across the five boroughs, in the form of $865 million for portable classrooms and new leases on private buildings that can be converted into schools. But with the total school population expected to grow by about 20,000 students each year for the foreseeable future, this boon won't come close to eliminating the need for busing, split sessions and hallway classrooms.
“Whatever is being put back now does not make up for what is needed,” says Sandra Lerner, the Bronx representative on the Board of Education. She points to the fact that the mayor gutted the central board's five-year capital plan, which began with a request for $7.5 billion, was cut to $3.4 billion in 1994 and then slashed to $2.9 billion in late 1995. The mayor and the City Council appropriated another $1.4 billion a year ago, mainly for exterior repairs, but more than a third of that won't be spent until the turn of the century.
Though the mayor's campaign commercials tout recent classroom spending, his views on the overcrowding problem have not revealed a great degree of urgency.
During last September's overcrowding crisis, the mayor advised kids during a radio interview to read the biography of Abe Lincoln who, he noted, learned in a one-room school and taught himself by reading. “Whether a school is a physically good school or not . . . when you want to, you can learn,” he said at the time.
He continued in this vein last January when he told a gathering of community newspaper editors: “The best universities are overcrowded because everybody wants to go to the best university–and they stretch . . . . Some of the best schools in this city are overcrowded. And I'm a parent. If I had a choice between a school that had small class sizes that didn't do a very good job on reading and math scores and a school in which my child was going to be in an overcrowded classroom but they performed better educationally, I'd put my child in an overcrowded classroom. And I think a lot of parents make that choice.” Notably, Giuliani has opted out of the city's public education system altogether, sending his son Andrew to a private school.
Ruben Quiroz, president of Accion Latina, a Corona-based organization that works with parents to improve schools, says politicians aren't making this issue a priority. “They say they have done something to make education their issue,” he says, but the “central issue–which is overcrowding–is not being resolved.”
The conventional wisdom holds that the city's legion of decaying and overcrowded schools is Giuliani's Achilles heel in the upcoming election. But without a comprehensive proposal detailing where money for new buildings would come from, opposition attacks have fallen flat.
It has been two years since Harold Levy, a vice president and counsel at Salomon Brothers, and his chancellor-chartered commission meticulously documented the extent of the school repair and crowding problems, calling for a “Marshall Plan” to fix them. The report denounced mismanagement at the Board of Education, but said the biggest problem was a lack of money. The authors called for a hike in the property tax, amounting to about $75 a year for homeowners. But no candidate is calling for that in an election year.
Ruth Messinger's “first priority would be education,” says her spokeswoman, Lisa Daglian, and that would include “getting as much space as quickly as possible.” But, she adds, “that doesn't mean a trailer-park education. That takes away open space for kids who are already cramped.” At press time, no one in the campaign would discuss the Levy Commission's idea of raising taxes for education.
The Reverend Al Sharpton did not reply to queries about his agenda on school crowding. But Councilmember Sal Albanese agrees with Messinger's criticism of portable classrooms, suggesting that an expanded leasing program is the way to go because it allows for “flexible growth” and brings new seats on line faster. But he opposes raising the property tax, because the city's relatively low tax rate is “one of the reasons we're able to keep middle class families in the city.” He says he is also hopeful a proposed state bond act for school construction will be approved.
As City Limits goes to press, the state legislature was debating the merits of such a plan, known as the LADDER program, which includes a $2 billion bond act to improve school facilities. City Democrats hope that, if the plan is passed, half this money would go to New York City.
Albany insiders say LADDER has a chance because Senate Republicans from upstate and Long Island have crumbling schools in their own districts. However, Pataki has not spoken in favor of the plan, and he may seek to stall any school-aid effort until next year so that he can deliver the goods at the height of his re-election campaign. Besides, if the state's fiscal 1998 budget is not approved by August 4, the proposal will be moot: The bond act, which must be approved by the voters, and cannot be placed on the November ballot after that date.
With spending in the current five-year capital plan for schools at about $4.2 billion and the possibility of an additional billion dollars from the bond act, Steven Sanders, a Manhattan Democrat who heads the Assembly's education committee, is hopeful the city may eventually turn the corner on school overcrowding. Still, he acknowledges, “everyone agrees we have to spend at least a billion dollars a year, certainly, over the next five years–and even over the next 15 years.” In fact, the Board of Education has said that $21 billion would be needed over 10 years to create sufficient space and return the system to a “state of good repair.”
Sanders warns, however, that any state bail-out will offer only a temporary fix. He recommends the city come up with “a reliable funding stream” dedicated to the schools. And what about the property tax? “I wouldn't want to say at this point what the funding stream would be,” he said. “That's up to the mayor and the Council.”
Council Speaker Peter Vallone's spokesman, Michael Clendenin, throws it back to the state. “Our problem could be solved very easily,” he said. “If Albany just gave the city its fair share [of education aid], if we just got what we were entitled to, we wouldn't have any overcrowding.”
Sanders dismisses this, noting that the $250 million to $350 million the city loses each year because of the inequitable distribution of state school aid is “not nearly enough to resolve the infrastructure [problems], the over-capacity, and the influx of new students.”
Meanwhile, parents vow they will organize in the hopes of forcing the issue. The Parents Organizing Consortium, a citywide umbrella group of grassroots organizations, will “put heat on the mayor regarding overcrowding and class size” this fall, says POC Coordinator Christine Marinoni. “We want to capitalize on the fact that this an election year.”
Jordan Moss is editor of Norwood News, a Bronx community paper.