Overcrowding outrage erupts; Hundreds decry lack of seats

By Albert Amateau

The Department of Education last week addressed the lack of space for incoming students by proposing to eliminate existing pre-kindergarten classes and devoting those seats to new kindergarten students.

It was a move that angered many parents, provoked at least two protest rallies, including one that attracted 300 people to the steps of City Hall, and fanned the opposition to mayoral control of the school system, which comes up for state legislative renewal at the end of June.

“It’s like stepping on a 4-year-old to pick up a 5-year-old,” said Rebecca Daniels, a Village resident and president of the District 2 Community Education Council, referring to the elimination of pre-K classes.

Daniels was among the protesters that crowded the City Hall steps on May 6 along with elected officials, including Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who represents the Village, and Councilmembers Alan Gerson, Rosie Mendez and Jessica Lappin, as well as Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

They criticized Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein for not listening to parents and failing to plan for more school space while the administration has encouraged residential development.

D.O.E. last weekend promised elected officials and parents in District 2, which encompasses Greenwich Village, Lower Manhattan, Chelsea and the Upper East Side, that the department would present a detailed response to the problem at a 6:30 p.m. meeting Thurs., May 14, at the Lab School, 333 W. 17th St.

Meanwhile, in breaking news, on Tuesday, New York University President John Sexton in a letter to local elected officials, said N.Y.U. is willing to make 5,500 square feet of space available to accommodate four pre-K classes from P.S. 41 and P.S. 3, opening up kindergarten space in the two Village schools. (See article on Page 1.)

In District 1, covering the East Village and Lower East Side, concern over elimination of pre-K classes reached a fever pitch last week. Earlier on the same day as the massive City Hall demonstration, parents at a rally in front of P.S. 63 on E. Third St. chanted, “Mayoral control has got to go,” and “No seats no vote,” referring to Bloomberg’s campaign next year for a third term. The crowd at the P.S. 63 rally also faulted Klein, a former private-sector corporate leader, for not having a background as an educator.

Margaret Chin, a candidate for City Council who was a student teacher 35 years ago at P.S. 63, told parents at the E. Third St. school, “If the mayor wants control of the schools, he better listen to parents.”

“Pitting 5-year-olds against 4-year-olds is not a solution,” said Quinn at the City Hall steps rally. “We have to find the number of school seats that we need and we have to come up with them now.”

“Residential buildings have gone up, but schools have not,” said Lappin, who represents the Upper East Side, where kindergarten classes are full and incoming children are on waiting lists. “We’ve been told the problem will sort itself out, but that’s not true.”

The Village-zoned schools, P.S. 41 and P.S. 3, last month assigned all their kindergarten seats and have placed 90 zoned students on a waiting list. Upper East Side and Lower Manhattan schools also have waiting lists for entering kindergarten students.

Quinn and other elected officials sent a letter to D.O.E. on May 5, noting that District 2 parents have identified several potential sites for kindergartens — although few could be ready for students by September.

On May 8, D.O.E. responded to elected officials in a letter acknowledging that P.S. 3 and P.S. 41, as well as P.S. 11 on W. 21st St., have 91 kindergarteners on a wait list. But the department noted that 63 kindergarten children in the district have qualified for gifted and talented programs. The department believes some parents may choose those programs and free up space in P.S. 3, P.S. 41 and P.S. 11.

“But we also know we must be proactive both in solving the short-term issue as soon as possible and in planning…for the repercussions of this scenario in the long run,” said the letter signed by Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grim.

The letter added that D.O.E. would soon secure a lease that could serve the Greenwich Village Middle School, currently in the P.S. 3 building, beginning in September 2010.

In addition to the state-owned building at 75 Morton St., Quinn’s letter cited a vacant lot at the corner of Broome and Hudson Sts., as well as the City-As-School building on Clarkson St.; 245 W. 14th St.; 30 Vandam St.; Pier 40 at W. Houston St.; Pier 57 at W. 16th St.; 437 W. 13th St.; 31 W. 15th St.; 417 Canal St.; 304 Hudson St.; 114 Varick St.; 555 Greenwich St.; 550 Washington St.; 325 Spring St.; 28 Greenwich Ave., and various vacant storefronts, including the former Barnes & Noble bookstore at Sixth Ave. and W. 22nd St., the former Circuit City at 52 E. 14th St. and the adjacent Virgin Megastore, which has posted signs that it will close.

At the District 2 parents’ meeting last weekend, Quinn told parents that she and other elected officials have organized a task force that will visit potential school spaces. In a questionnaire distributed to parents, Quinn said, “The D.O.E. has committed to explore all feasible sites we find. Please, if you know of a building that’s for sale or lease, an empty lot or any facility that might house a school, let us know about it.”

Nicky Perry, a Village mother whose child is on the P.S.3/41 waiting list, said this week that she was glad Quinn was working on the case.

“But that work should have been done two years ago,” Perry said. Perry told The Villager that she has scouted a potential kindergarten location at Greenwich House, 67 Barrow St., which has recently discontinued a private nonprofit daycare center, as a possible public-school kindergarten site.

“It sounds ridiculous that parents have to look for school space, but this is a serious situation,” Perry said.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said on Fri., May 8, that he wanted parents to be heard on education, but he didn’t want to take away mayoral control of schools.

“This is not a matter of control — it’s a matter of transparency, it’s a matter of being heard,” Silver said. “The question now is whether they have the opportunity to be heard. It’s about creating the vehicles by which they can be heard without affecting who ultimately makes the decisions.”

At the May 6 rally at City Hall, Gerson noted that city-funded daycare centers have been closing.

“We need to cancel the elimination of daycare centers,” he said. Gerson also called on D.O.E. to find kindergarten space for the coming school year, and demanded that the city approve no land-use projects in a neighborhood unless there are schools for children who might live there. Gerson said he also wants the D.O.E. capital plan to provide for well-equipped schools “with real gyms and real science rooms.”

State Senator Tom Duane and Assemblymember Deborah Glick also issued statements at the May 6 rally, faulting D.O.E. for ignoring predictions of school overcrowding.

“I have told D.O.E. repeatedly that they must plan ahead to ensure that all children can go to a public elementary school in their neighborhood,” Duane said.

Said Glick, “The D.O.E. continues to treat our youngest children as widgets, while focusing most of their energy on the false promise of choice — and yet what choice do parents who have received waiting-list letters have?”