At a recent community board hearing on the rezoning of downtown Far Rockaway, Queens Community Board 14 chair Dolores Orr objected to the city’s assessment that the area did not need any more schools to accommodate families in the more than 3,000 new apartments that could be created under the plan. The city had determined that the schools nearby had enough capacity to absorb the population increase.
The city’s analysis of local schools, Orr complained, was too geographically broad: While the rezoning is roughly in the area near Beach 19th and Beach 22nd street, the city considered schools as far west as Beach 79th street.
“I don’t know any first grader who’s going to travel all the way from [Beach] 20th street to [Beach] 54th street for an elementary seat,” Orr protested.
While the community board gave the rezoning proposal its blessing last week, it was on condition that the city build a new elementary school, among other demands.
Far Rockaway is not the first and will likely not be the last rezoning area that objects to the way the city assesses the potential impact of residential development projects on schools. Critics object to the methodology outlined in the City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) Technical Guidelines, a document that describes how the city should conduct its environmental review of land use changes.
Some dispute the guidelines’ method for determining the number of students that are likely to be produced by the creation of an apartment: The guidelines offers a ratio for each borough, but some say the city should take into account that neighborhoods are likely to attract different kinds of family sizes. And there are many other critiques, ranging from how the manual determines what is considered a “significant adverse impact” on a school to the lack of legal mechanisms to ensure potential effects are mitigated.
City Limits took a look at the city’s school analysis in the two neighborhood rezonings that have completed environmental review—Far Rockaway and East New York—to assess exactly what assumptions are contested. But while there may be ways the city’s environmental review process could be refined, we discovered that there are also larger issues at play: continued distrust of the Department of Education (DOE)’s calculations of overcrowding, the opacity of the process used by the School Construction Authority to plan for the construction of future school seats in the city as a whole, and the simple challenge of funding enough school seats to keep up with the city’s development patterns.
In Far Rockaway, a question of commute
The city, in preparing its analysis of the downtown Far Rockaway rezoning’s impact on schools, had followed the guidelines’ prescription to look at all schools within the “subdistrict” to which the land use project belonged.
Subdistricts are a planning concept used by city agencies and not known to most parents. City representatives explain that after receiving feedback from community advocates and City Council members, the city started using subdistricts, instead of districts, to ensure a localized analysis while planning for new school seats. Each school district has two to five subdistricts, each representing a small group of neighborhoods.
While School District 27 includes all of the Rockaways and Howard Beach, School District 27 Subdistrict 1 includes just the eastern half of the Rockaway islands and encompasses nine school zones. DCP says it makes no judgments about how far it is reasonable for a student to travel, but the assessment appears to rely upon the assumption that a student would be able to reach any of the schools in the subdistrict. Orr and others disagree with that assessment: PS 183 at 79 Street is a 20-minute ride on the Q22 bus from downtown Far Rockaway—too far a commute, they argue, for elementary school families.
Far Rockaway Rezoning
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But the problem to neighborhood stakeholders is not just that the geographic area is large, but also that on average the schools closest to the rezoning are already more crowded than the schools farther out west, according to data in the EIS provided by the DOE.
The DOE’s Enrollment, Capacity & Utilization Report, also known as the “blue book,” assesses the utilization rate of each school in the city by dividing a school’s enrollment by its building capacity. PS. 253, the elementary school in the heart of the rezoning, is at 113 percent capacity, while P.S. 183 at 79th Street has a utilization rate of 86 percent. That means that as a new population grows in the Far Rockaway area, either existing residents or newcomers will likely have to send their elementary school children outside of their zone.
The Department of City Planning (DCP) emphasizes that the rezoning is not necessarily going to result in the creation of 3,000 apartments—that’s just the maximum development that the city predicts might occur by 2032. As for whether the subdistrict is too large for this analysis, DCP says that can be discussed at the City Planning Commission hearing on the EIS.
In East New York, questions of sufficiency
East New York is a different story: DCP determined that the rezoning would lead to significant overcrowding, and the agency committed to a 1,000-seat school. The source of the disagreement between advocates and city planners is whether that school will be enough.
The Coalition for Community Advancement in Cypress Hills and East New York says that the EIS underestimates the existing overcrowding in East New York schools. The EIS uses the DOE’s 2014-2015 blue book, the DOE’s annual report on school use rates. Educators have long questioned the way the blue book calculates the building capacity of each schools.
The 2014-2015 blue book, however, incorporates several long-sought reforms. It doesn’t consider classrooms in trailers as legitimate class space, a long held concern, and allows each school to reserve a few rooms for art, music, teacher prep and counseling.
But Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, say the blue book still underestimates overcrowding by permitting large class sizes. In 2007, after a state court mandated that New York State change its education funding system and address overcrowding, New York City established target class sizes of 20 students per classroom for grades K through 3, 23 students per classroom in grades 4 through 8 and 25 students per class in high school. But while the most recent blue book reflects these targets for Kindergarten through third grade, it allows a maximum of 28 students for grades 4 through 8 and 30 students for high schools.
And the Coalition in East New York says the blue book still underestimates the space needed by a school by failing to reserve capacity for the kinds of resources needed in low-income communities—like a neighborhood clinic or extra classroom for reading-challenged students. In addition, as the EIS itself notes, the neighborhood has many co-locating charter schools that are projected to grow, with corresponding shrinkages in the enrollment of the neighborhood’s zone schools. (Charter schools do not give preference to students in the zone closest by, though they are required to give preference to students in the school district.) The Coalition is concerned that charter schools will continue to expand even further than what the city currently expects—and that co-located schools, where regular and charter schools share a building, often feel more overcrowded than is recognized by the blue book.
The DOE, however, emphasizes that it works closely with each school and, when addressing a school’s needs, looks at more than the utilization rate, considering factors such as the building layout, whether the school is located in one area or is split in several buildings, and other factors.
But the coalition’s critiques of the EIS go farther, with objections to DCP’s response to both the conclusions of the analysis and the agency’s ultimate recommendations.
The East New York rezoning overlaps with two of DCP’s subdistricts. Subdistrict 1 encompasses the currently overcrowded neighborhood of Cypress Hills north of Atlantic Avenue—in which the new school would be located—while subdistrict 2 includes East New York south of Atlantic Avenue.
East New York Rezoning
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In subdistrict 2, which is not expected to be served by the new school, DCP estimates that the average school utilization rate would increase from 98.3 percent, if no rezoning took place, to 109.5 percent—a 11.2 percent increase, by 2024. Middle schools experience a similar increase. This means the rezoning would have a “significant adverse impact” on schools under the city’s analysis guidelines.
But the city does not recommend a new school for this subdistrict, nor one of the other less-pricy mitigation strategies—like reorganizing school space. The guidelines for the EIS do not require mitigation, but rather recommends consulting DOE and SCA for the feasibility of any proposed mitigation strategy.
“Sub-district 2 will be monitored,” the EIS states. “If a need for additional capacity is identified, DOE will evaluate the appropriate timing and mix of measures, identified above, to address increased school enrollment…if additional school construction is warranted, and if funding is available, it will be identified in the Five-Year Capital Plan that covers the period in which the capacity need would occur.”
Why does the north side of Atlantic Avenue—district 1—get a school, and the south side doesn’t? The city says it’s because of the speed at which the adverse impacts would occur and the certainty of the projects slated for the north side. The north side is expected to see a great deal of crowding by 2020, but the southern section is not projected to see it until 2024.
It’s not like district 1 wins the lottery, though: Temporary high levels of overcrowding will occur before the school is completed. In addition, overcrowding will increase even with a new school—from that 127.7 percent utilization rate without the rezoning to 128.1 percent with the rezoning. Because the rezoning caused an increase of less than one percent, it is considered to have not exacerbated the situation.
DCP sees the EIS as just a disclosure document and only one piece of information that informs the SCA’s capital planning process. The agency argues that with funding limited, SCA must prioritize its resources to meet the existing need for new schools in other parts of the city. Indeed, according to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office based on the 2013-2014 blue book, East New York is by no means the most overcrowded district today; it’s the seventh least overcrowded of the city’s 32 districts. (Haimson says the analysis may overall misrepresent school crowding because it defines overcrowding, conservatively, at 102.5 percent, and uses the old blue book.)
Where the crowds are
Even if East New York has lower-than-average overcrowding, it might not feel like it to families in some parts of the district. A City Limits analysis of the 2015-2016 blue book found the district had 47 below-capacity schools, with an average utilization rate of 65 percent, and 18 overcrowded schools, with an average utilization rate of 130 percent (charter schools included).
Based on their sense of local schools’ crowdedness, Coalition members disagree with the city’s recommendations. They say that the rezoning will make it harder to find land on which to build future schools. Rather than wait to site a second school later, they say the city should be siting four or six schools today. The Coalition has also recommended the creation of a Density Growth Management Area that would require that any new residential development set aside a certain amount of floor area and funding for the development of community facilities like schools and infrastructure.
There may be some legitimacy to the city’s argument that, given limited resources, the needs of the most overcrowded districts should be addressed first. But with the lack of transparency on how the School Construction Authority (SCA) plans for future schools in the city as a whole, it’s no wonder the Coalition has little trust that their district’s overcrowding will ever be addressed outside of the rezoning negotiations.
The SCA’s five-year capital plans, which are updated annually, take into account a variety of factors in assessing the need for school construction, including existing overcrowding, projected future enrollment calculations, and forthcoming housing development. Yet critics say its impossible to figure out exactly how these factors are combined to determine the “identified need” for each district.
“Their needs assessment is never, never written down any where and their methodology is never, never written down anywhere,” says Class Size Matters’ Haimson.
Given the city’s mix of underutilized and overcrowded schools—and different understandings of how easy it is to re-sort students among those schools—how to measure total existing overcrowding is the most contentious issue. SCA’s capital planning process gives consideration to how underutilized schools could be used to accommodate overcrowding at nearby schools through rezoning, changing enrollment patterns by improving schools, and other measures.
“When the SCA proposes future investment in this Plan, it does so having assessed its ability to change structures, and having concluded that capital investment is the optimal—perhaps only—means by which to address current or future needs,” the authority’s capital plan states.
SCA does not publish a statistic of existing overcrowding, but the blue book does tell us that considering total enrollment citywide against total capacity citywide, the city is short about 22,000 elementary school seats, but has a sufficient number of middle and high school seats.
The 2015 IBO analysis, however, found that the city needed 74,928 seats to bring every existing school to a utilization rate of 102.5 percent without re-sorting students between schools. It notes that re-sorting students, while sometimes feasible, can be difficult because redistricting can be “politically contentious.”
The SCA relies on consultants to assess future school enrollment, taking into account factors like in-and-out migration patterns, fertility and drop-out rates. According to the latest reports, the city expects the school-age population to drop from this year’s 1,013,145 to 975,207 students by 2025-2026—a reduction of almost 38,000 students. Haimson, however, notes in her report Space Crunch that the city’s past estimations have often been incorrect.
Separately, the SCA also takes into account the projected creation of about 176,000 housing units from the year 2015 through 2019. This projection accounts for all housing projects in process or expected to be constructed, using information shared by DCP, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Buildings. The SCA also projects the creation of 2,000 units in the years 2020 through 2024—a clear indication that this figure will be updated as new housing projects come online. Some of these apartments, of course, will be occupied by seniors or childless adults and not bring new children into the public school system.
Taking all these measurements into account, the SCA’s latest version of its 2015-2019 capital plan states that altogether, the city needed 82,811 new seats to accommodate future growth and existing overcrowding.
This seems like an underestimate to some: Haimson expects the real need is for over 100,000 seats. Especially when one looks at the district level, there is cause for question. The IBO report found that while East New York was less crowded than other areas, it still faced a shortfall of 400 seats. The SCA until recently identified East New York as having no need for new seats—until 2016, the year of the rezoning, when it said East New York needed exactly 1,000 seats (conveniently, to be met with the creation of one new 1,000-seat school).
Laying aside disagreements over the SCA’s calculations for what each district needs, there’s the question of whether the city is doing enough to meet that need. The De Blasio administration argues that it has made the issue of school capacity a funding priority. Budget proposals released earlier this year include $15.5 billion for the 2015-2019 capital plan—up from the original $12 billion recommended by the Bloomberg administration, and exceeding funding levels for Bloomberg’s 2010-2014 capital plan. That $15.5 billion covers the creation of 44,324 of the 82,811 needed seats. The administration has also announced that the city’s 2020-2024 capital plan will include funding for the remaining 38,000 seats, at least.
Unless birth rates decline significantly or everyone begins sending their kids to private school, it seems likely SCA’s projections will increase beyond 38,000 by the next capital plan, especially if eleven rezonings under consideration receive City Council’s stamp of approval and the 421a tax credit is renewed.
“We’ll likely be even further behind given current trends,” argues Haimson, who is deeply skeptical the next capital budget will be enough to address the city’s overcrowding as housing development continues.
A discussion for each rezoning neighborhood
As the de Blasio administration completes the environmental review process for other neighborhoods targeted for a rezoning, the question of school capacity is likely to come up again.
According to a City Limits analysis, the neighborhoods targeted by de Blasio for a rezoning fall across a spectrum of overcrowding. The analysis examines total elementary school enrollment divided by total capacity across all elementary schools for each district, and doesn’t take into account the fact that a district could have very overcrowded schools in some areas and very below-capacity schools other areas. Another map of overcrowding, based on the IBO’s 2015 analysis, can be viewed at DNAinfo.com.
School Crowding and Rezoning Areas
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The Gowanus and Far Rockway rezonings are within the most overcrowded school districts, while the school districts of Bay Street, Long Island City, Jerome Avenue and Southern Boulevard also face overcrowding. It’s safe to expect that concerns about overcrowding may arise in other rezoning neighborhoods, too.
In light of the many issues surrounding school overcrowding, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced during her state of the city address that she would create an internal City Council working group to study school planning and the impacts of rezonings.
Mark-Viverito’s district of East Harlem is not overcrowded according to our analysis, but stakeholders in her neighborhood have already raised concerns about inadequate facilities and increased competition for space.