Schools Chancellor Hears Plea for More Downtown Schools

Chancellor Dennis Walcott speaks to members of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's School Overcrowding Task Force and other education officials. To his right are Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm and Lorraine Grillo, head of the School Construction Authority. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 05, 2013

Lower Manhattan principals faced New York City schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and delivered the latest bad news. There is another crushing demand for kindergarten seats Downtown. Nearly 150 children, they said, are now on waitlists, and letters to their parents, along with offers to those accepted, are being mailed out today.

Walcott and other Department of Education officials attended a meeting on Thursday of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s School Overcrowding Task Force, a group that has been meeting monthly for years. This was the second time in two years that Walcott has sat with the group and, not surprisingly, he heard the same plea for more schools.

Despite the addition of three new Lower Manhattan schools in recent years, Silver told the chancellor, “We have been unsuccessful in our overcrowding problem that brought us together.”

“We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he added. “We’re running out of temporary solutions.”

Walcott declined to offer a solution but pledged to start a dialogue between his deputies and a subgroup of the task force. With the time approaching when decisions are made on where new schools will be built or leased over the next five years, Walcott said “we’re at a golden point right now of collaborating together around addressing some of the issues you have raised.” 

“I’ve got folks lined up on my side so we’re ready to mobilize as quickly as possible,” he said.

Walcott said the group would “look at what the numbers actually show” in order to possibly develop a plan for alleviating the overcrowding. But for those on the task force who have been projecting and analyzing demographic numbers over the years, the evidence is already clear.

Diane Switaj, Community Board 1’s deputy director for land use planning, presented the DOE officials with census data showing a skyrocketing child population in Lower Manhattan that far exceeds the average for all of Manhattan. In the Financial District, for example, the number of children four years old and under increased 242 percent between 2000 and 2010. In Tribeca, it was nearly 200 percent. That compares to an increase of only .7 percent Manhattan-wide, she said.

At the current rate of growth, the shortage of elementary school seats in the Community board 1 district will soar to 1,200 in the next five to six years, reported Eric Greenleaf, a long-time member of the task force whose demographic projections are often cited by the group.

“It takes three to five years to site, fund and build an elementary school,” Greenleaf told the chancellor. “We hope the Department of Education will take a look at these numbers and realize we need to get started quickly.”

“I’m actually shocked to see these numbers, Eric,” said Shino Tanikawa, president of District 2’s Community Education Council. “I knew things were bad but this is quite frightening.”

For parents who are about to receive waitlist letters, things are bad already. Among the 148 rising kindergartners on the lists for Lower Manhattan schools, there are 50 waiting for PS 234, 13 for the Peck Slip School, 41 for PS 276 and 44 for PS 89.

PS 397 (the Spruce Street School) is a couple of students short of capacity, Principal Nancy Harris reported.

Those on the waitlist who do not receive a seat at their zoned school will be informed in June of an alternate assignment to the next closest school. Those schools, if they have extra space, are in Chinatown.

Drew Patterson, from the DOE’s office of portfolio management, said he anticipates the number of children on the lists to drop in the coming months as some parents choose to send their children to gifted programs or private school or accept offers to unzoned PS 150 in Tribeca. “There will be attrition,” he said.