Testimony of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. Before the City Council Oversight Committee
RE: School Planning and Siting for New Capacity
February 28, 2017
With the formation of a mayoral commission on school overcrowding, we can do a better job at school planning and siting.
The February 2017 proposed capital plan does not fund a sufficient number of seats, and this is a problem for both The Bronx and for New York City. There are thousands of “unfunded seats” in The Bronx alone, a borough with an educational system in need of better solutions. Not only does the number of funded seats not meet the Department of Education (DOE)’s own stated needs, the methods for assessing need as well as the school siting process must be rectified. The current school planning and siting process is denying our students the opportunity for success they deserve.
Our educational system is failing our students. Just 37 percent of students citywide graduate on time and meet CUNY college readiness standards in reading and math.
The graduation rate for The Bronx is only 63 percent. We must seek better methods to educate our youth. One such widely accepted method is reducing class sizes and overcrowding in schools. To do this, we need to change the School Construction Authority’s (SCA)’s and the DOE process, which has multiple serious flaws.
Overcrowding and too-large classes evince the failure of the current system.
School overcrowding is a rampant problem. A recent analysis found the following: School districts 8, 9, 10 and 11 in The Bronx all average over 100 percent capacity while District 12 was at 99 percent, according to the School Construction Authority.
Many local schools in District 7 were also very overcrowded. P.S. 163 in District 9, with a population of 99 percent free lunch students, 98 percent Black and Latino students, and 33 percent English language learners was at an incredible 213 percent of capacity.
The School Construction Authority has acknowledged, including before the Bronx Borough Board, that school overcrowding is a pervasive and ongoing problem and that we need to fund substantially more seats. Further, the DOE’s own projected need for seats demonstrates that New York City needs tens of thousands more seats than those approved in the capital plan. Prompt action is needed on this issue, especially in light of the increasing population density in New York City and the City’s affordable housing goals which would further increase density.
Students are crammed into large classes throughout the city. Notably, an analysis found that more than 55,000 Bronx students were sitting in classes of 30 or more students. We know that smaller class sizes that allow for more individualized attention and participation and more physical space to provide resources makes a difference in educating students. So, why not make every effort to provide the best education we can in our public schools?
Bronx schools enroll a disproportionately high number of low-income students, children of color, and recent immigrants to this country. At the same time, these students are crammed into classes with student-teacher ratios in substantial violation of the current teachers’ contract and into overburdened schools. These conditions make it extremely difficult for teachers to provide students with the close attention and support they need to learn and succeed.
The research is crystal clear that smaller classes are better for our children. They launch students, especially disadvantaged children, on a far better trajectory in life, offering them a significantly higher chance of graduating from high school on time and attending college. Yet, the needed classroom space is lacking.
To address the issues arising from new development, triggers for requirements to build more seats in a given district should better account for the proximity to capacity at which the school already stands. Currently, when rezoning occurs, building a new school in a community only has to be considered when the project is both predicted to increase school overcrowding by at least five percent and when the utilization rate is at or over 100 percent.
A better approach that should be explored is that when a school has already exceeded capacity, any incremental increase should trigger further review. In other words, thresholds must better account for where a school is with regard to capacity prior to the rezoning. New construction is likely to exacerbate school overcrowding to even more critical levels, especially without a concurrent strategy to address the need to build schools along with new housing.
The current policies and practices with regard to school planning and siting are faulted.
According to an analysis, the SCA has only three people on staff citywide looking for sites, and only one real estate firm on retainer per borough and fails to “cold call.” This low staffing level and deviation from common real estate practice may be a cause of the lack of alacrity with which they site and build schools. Multiple recent amendments of the five year capital plan were months overdue.
Further evidence of dysfunction is that in February 2014, SCA allocated $490 million to create an additional 4,900 seats under a new “class size reduction” program and took two years to identify any projects for the program. Still, this program has only identified three school expansion projects. We must improve the dilatory practices of the SCA to promote efficiency.
This August, I wrote a letter to Mayor de Blasio urging him to form a commission on the school planning and siting process to address the aforementioned issues. We look forward to action on this issue.
I once again urge the formation of a mayoral commission to reform the school planning process, with representation from the Borough Presidents, the City Council, advocates, parents and experts in the areas of school planning and construction. For the future of The Bronx and the city, we must do better to create optimal learning environments for students.
The above faults with DOE and SCA’s school planning and siting process underscore the need for the formation of a commission to rectify all the above issues. Together, we can do better at reducing class sizes, eliminating overcrowding, and providing new seats in our schools.