John McCarten/City Council

Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Daniel Dromm, until recently the Council's education chair, were two leaders of the Working Group on school space policy.

More than three years ago, the new PS 77 opened on Webster Avenue in the Norwood section of the Bronx. Two Septembers later and two blocks away, PS 56 began operating again after a two-year hiatus during which it gained a massive new, three-story addition. Together, the projects added more than 1,000 new school seats to district 10. Add to that the Bronx Community Charter School, which moved to a site just across from PS 77 so that it might expand to serve middle-school as well as elementary grades, and it seemed that one of the city’s most crowded school districts was getting the kind of new capacity its parents and pols had long demanded.

But as soon as the construction crews finished the schools, it seemed, they moved down the street to work on one of the many new residential buildings rising in the neighborhood. There’s the apartment building next door to the charter school, the other structure just north of PS77, the multiple new high-rises popping up just a touch south on the corner of 204th Street, and the wall of tall, wide and shallow buildings now sitting on a once forlorn sliver between Woodlawn Cemetery and the Metro-North tracks.

Propelled by a 2011 upzoning of the Webster Avenue corridor, the neighborhood is booming. And once again, the question is whether school capacity will catch up.

That’s a question asked in a lot of neighborhoods, especially those where one of Mayor de Blasio’s neighborhood rezonings aim to add new residential capacity, or others where overcrowding is already a reality. A report released on Tuesday by a City Council working group finds flaws in the way the city plans for how many school seats it needs, how it sites the schools it decides to build, and what it tells the public about how approaches about either task.

“Overcrowding has well-documented negative impacts on educational opportunity and attainment, and has long been a problem in New York City schools,” the report, titled Planning to Learn, reads. “Building new schools to address overcrowding has been a challenge for several decades. NYC is also currently seeing increases in housing development that have the potential to exacerbate school overcrowding, particularly as it takes place in the areas of the city that already have the most overutilized schools.”

The report finds that more than half (54 percent) of elementary- and middle-school students attend schools that are over capacity, while nearly half (47 percent) of high school students go to such schools.

These schools might be sprinkled around districts that, in other places, have more seats than are needed. The report points to Manhattan’s district 2, which has an overall utilization rate of 94 percent, but includes PS 2—only 70 percent full—and PS 150, at 148 percent of capacity.

On the other hand, the crowded schools could be concentrated in the seven of the city’s 32 districts that are themselves over capacity, like District 20 covering Borough Park, Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and the southern section of Sunset Park in Brooklyn, which is at 121 percent of capacity.

Even those numbers could understate the problem, or at least its potential. A major thrust of the Council report is that the way the city reports school utilization data makes it hard to know whether there are pockets of problems within districts with excess capacity. The report also raises concerns about the reliability of projections of school need in future years, especially as a result of rapid housing development.

As it stands, the report says, the Department of City Planning expects 80,000 more school-aged children to live in the city by 2040. According to the city’s Department of Education (DOE), the de Blasio administration’s current plan, which runs through 2019, includes funding to supply more than half of them.

“We are committed to addressing overcrowding across this city, and have invested significant resources to increase seat capacity, reduce class size and replace outdated facilities,” says Michael Aciman, DOE’s deputy press secretary. “As part of the current Capital Plan, we are investing $6.5 billion to create more than 46,600 seats in overcrowded areas, including 25 new DOE sites with 8,400 new seats since last year, and 14 new locations with 4,650 seats at the start of the next school year.”

More students coming, more staying

The overcrowding problem is in some ways a symptom of success. The city is attracting more residents. Public schools are adding new students through universal pre-kindergarten and the mayor’s pilot 3-K initiative, while also retaining more kids because of the lower dropout rate. Even at the individual school level, overcrowding can be the byproduct of otherwise positive developments, like the removal of poor-performing trailer classrooms.

Whatever its causes, solving the capacity problem won’t be easy, the report indicates. School enrollment has fluctuated dramatically over the past four decades, and even now school utilization is uneven across the city and even within districts, all of which makes planning more difficult. The city is less than fully transparent about how it makes school-seat planning decisions, and some of the methodology it does disclose could be out of date: one key formula, the “Projected Public School Ratio,” is based on data collected between 1990 and 2000.

Identifying a need for school seats is just the beginning, of course. Then there is the question of addressing it.

The School Construction Authority has gotten much more efficient at its job, reducing the average build-out time for a new school from 10 years to 3 and adding 27,000 seats during the last full five-year capital plan, which ended in 2014.

Almost by definition, however, land is hard to find in hot real-estate markets—usually the very neighborhoods where new capacity is needed. What big parcels of land remain are often contaminated, adding an expensive remediation to development costs. And while it’s a nice thought to add new schools to new affordable-housing buildings, the engineering doesn’t always work: Affordable housing tends to use concrete construction, but school gymnasiums are too large to occupy the lower floors of concrete-built buildings. Schools also must be built to very strict seismic standards, which is probably a reasonable safety measure, but not a cost-saving one.

Meanwhile, the process for getting space for charter schools is disconnected from the larger school-construction process, the Council report finds. With roughly one in 10 public-school children now educated in one of the city’s 227 schools, 60 percent of such schools located within regular public-school buildings, and the city compelled by state law to grant space or rental subsidies to charters, that disconnect is a problem.

The Council recommends the Department of Education and School Construction Authority update their algorithms for projecting population growth and provide a lot more transparency of the method they use to determine factors driving that growth, like the varying birth rates for differing racial groups.

When it comes to actually addressing whatever overcrowding those revised methods predict, the ideas get more controversial: The Council recommends the city use eminent domain to seize potential school sites where necessary, and consider redrawing school zones and district lines to balance population between schools that have too many kids and those with empty seats. Both would run into opposition in some areas.

The Council clearly sides with those who believe class size plays a key role in student outcomes, noting, “research has shown that students in overcrowded NYC schools scored 2-9 percent lower on math and reading exams than those in underutilized schools.” (Some studies have questioned the degree to which class size influences kids’ performance.)

Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, firmly shares the Council’s view. She tells City Limits, “The City Council has done a good job identifying many of the problems contributing to the extreme level of overcrowding in NYC public schools, with more than 570,000 students in overcrowded schools, according to the latest data.”

She wishes, however, that the Council would do more on its own to address the shortfalls. “The Council throws many proposals to solve this ongoing crisis back to the mayor and the DOE, who too often have shown themselves resistant to reform,” Haimson says. “We need the Council to act on these ideas affirmatively by passing new laws to improve accuracy and transparency in reporting on enrollment projections and the need for new schools, reform the zoning process so that schools are built along with new housing rather than years afterwards, and impose impact fees so that developers will carry their fair share of the costs.”