Column from Westchester Square Zerega Improvement Organization (Sandi Lusk)

westchester_CPPost by Contributor Sandi Lusk

Last week Woody and I attended a meeting about the new Westchester Square Branch Library to be built on Lane Avenue in the Square.

The NYPL VP for Government and Community Affairs, the VP for Public Service, and a representative from NYPL Capital Planning were there, as well as our Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, Ken Kearns from Community Board 10, Kathleen Carrasco, new Head Librarian of the current branch library, Bridgette Lozada from Owen Dolen Recreation Center, Tom Casey, from the Northeast Bronx Historical Society based in the Huntington Library, and a representative from Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance attended.

Funding for the new branch (total $13.4 million) is being supplied as follows: $10.4 million from the City Council (thanks to Councilman Vacca) with $2 million that was designated by former Mayor Bloomberg, and $1.4 million from the Bronx Borough President’s office. The Library speakers gave an overview of the new building and what programs and resources they would like to have there.

The building itself will be 12,000 square feet and take up almost the entire corner. The design is very modern, with glass walls, open spaces, natural light, and a bright airy interior. It will be a Borough-wide research resource, as well as serving the immediate community. There will be access to many digital collections and e-resources also. The library plans to expand the ESL programs, and have preschool programs, out of school and after school programs, 55+ art programs, and tech classes and adult learning.

The NYPL representatives threw open the floor for suggestions for community programs. Councilman Vacca had many ideas, including: a GED program, college credit courses, health and wellness classes, citizenship and American history classes, and immigration legal assistance.

We stressed the changing demographics of the community such as the younger families with school age children that moved here attracted by the opening of IS/MS 194 (now with almost 1500 kids attending). We also stressed that children’s programs are very needed and we would like the NYPL to not forget the immediate community in their intention of making this a borough-wide library center.

The NYPL representatives were quite open to our suggestions and explained there will be many other meetings about this, as well as another presentation to the Community Board. We have been waiting for this for many years, and it is the last piece of the Westchester Square revitalization puzzle to be put in place. The estimated time of completion is 2018. Although this will be a very modern structure, the original landmarked Huntington library building from the 1890s will not only remain, but will be spruced up and renovated. So the Square will have the old and brand new side by side, which is fitting, as one of the most historically important areas of the Bronx which is looking forward with optimism to a bright future.

And now, to touch on another issue, education inequality. For years we followed the Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s legal battle to get fair education funding for the city and state’s children. The landmark ruling by the NYS Court of Appeals in 2006 in their favor set aside $5.5 million in school aid as a result. This funding lasted for only 2 years, and from 2009-2012, these funds were frozen and cuts were made instead. The CFE funding issue and the case ruling have been lost in recent years in the debates about charter schools, Common Core, and testing and teacher evaluation controversies.

A new report called Record Setting Inequality: New York State’s Opportunity Gap is Wider Than Ever, has come out, and is co-sponsored by the Alliance for Quality Education, the Public Policy and Education Fund, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Opportunity Action. The report states that: “Despite his promises, record setting inequality in our schools is one of the legacies of Governor Cuomo’s first term. The gap between wealthy and poor school districts grew to $8,733 per pupil, the largest in New York State history.”

And, as to property taxes as a source of funding: “The way we fund education through the property tax system [wealthier areas of course have much more money to spend and fewer schools and children to spend it on], by definition is going to be unfair. And it is. The state is supposed to equalize or come close to equalizing this with its funding. That’s the CFE law suit that the state is yet to fully fund.”

While poverty and wealth impact children’s everyday lives, educational resources are provided to close the gap in educational outcomes. These include universal pre-kindergarten, smaller class sizes, a curriculum including art, music and physical education, as well as core academic subjects and advanced courses, ESL classes, and health supports to meet the needs of students.

The report states further that “in order for New York State to end inequality in our schools the state must make a four-year commitment to fully funding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Our schools are owed $5.9 billion in Foundation Aid and Gap Elimination Adjustment funding.”

Public schools in poor districts are starved for funds, denying kids needed programs and support services, while schools in wealthier areas have abundant financial support, leading to greater opportunities for educational success. This gap needs to be closed by the state, per the court ruling. And as for charter schools, they have generous corporate and public funding (generous enough to turn a profit and pay huge salaries to their CEOs). We should not look to them as a viable model for public school education; they can pick and choose their students, public schools cannot. Public schools owe EVERY child a sound basic education. It’s in our State Constitution. It’s about time the state got on with its obligation to ALL the school children of NY.

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