Pre-K push worries Downtown advocates


BY JOSH ROGERS  |  If Mayor Bill de Blasio wants effective grassroots help for his push to expand pre-K seats starting this September, there may be no better group to turn to then Lower Manhattan’s school advocates who have fought for and found several school locations in recent years. But if he wants obedient foot soldiers, he’ll have to look somewhere else.

Many of the Downtown advocates are worried the push to add pre-K space throughout the city will compete with the need to solve Lower Manhattan’s overcrowding problem.

“It seems like they’re giving you a decorated horse, but they’ve already pulled two wheels off the cart,” said Tammy Meltzer, a member of Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee.

She was referring to the fact that as it now stands, Lower Manhattan will actually lose two pre-K classrooms in September to make way for the growing space needs of P.S. 276 and Peck Slip School, currently housed at the Dept. of Education’s headquarters in the Tweed Courthouse.

“The concern is they will open a pre-K center in Tweed and dissolve incubation space,” Tricia Joyce, chairperson of the Education Committee, said Tuesday night at a meeting to discuss the plan.

The committee started off with a draft resolution expressing unequivocal support for the pre-K expansion, but the consensus from the beginning was to make it clear that although expanding pre-K was desirable, there was also a pressing need to find more elementary school space.

“All I’m being asked to do is support this [pre-K expansion] and I’m not getting an answer to our questions as a community board,” Joyce said.

She said C.B.1 was asked to attend a City Hall rally to support the mayor’s plan.

Paul Hovitz, the Board 1 committee’s co-chairperson, said, “We are not saying we oppose the plan, we are saying you need to address an immediate emergency situation….

“The mayor has found the money to address a very important need in universal pre-K, we have a very important need for those children as they go through the system.”

De Blasio campaigned on the idea of raising taxes slightly on the city’s wealthiest residents in order to pay for full-day pre-K for all children as well as for afterschool programs for middle schools, but Gov.. Andrew Cuomo and State Senate Republicans oppose the tax.

Cuomo wants to provide universal pre-K statewide, and maintains the state will be able to fund the city program as quickly as de Blasio can implement it, but he has not  identified where the money will come from without the tax. [Disclosure: This reporter intends to apply for a pre-K seat outside of Lower Manhattan this September.]

The push for more pre-K space is also creating pressures at Spruce Street School in the Financial District.

On Tuesday, Nancy Harris, the school’s principal, told members of her School Leadership Team that Spruce will be facing a choice in two years to either provide full day pre-K, or proceed with plans to grow the elementary school into a K-8, according to two parents at the meeting, Chris Growney, co-chairperson of the school committee, and Sarah ElBatanouny.

Growney said Harris did not say she was being pressured to provide more pre-K space “but she’s obviously aware of the general discussion about pre-K.”

Harris did not respond to requests for comment Feb. 12.

Growney said if the middle school is canceled, there would be a “very emphatic negative response to that.”

Currently the school goes to fourth grade, and Growney said based on the principal’s report, the school had two more years in which if could maintain its two pre-K rooms, and probably could add at least one more room in September.

“We need clarity,” he said.

An Education Dept. spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

De Blasio did mention Lower Manhattan overcrowding at a Feb. 4 press conference in response to a question about how he wanted to spend money he cut from charter schools.

“I have a number of concerns…overcrowded schools being one of the most pressing. Central Queens, Lower Manhattan, we have areas in Staten Island — North Shore of Staten Island — obviously, Upper East Side and Upper West Side have had waitlists for kindergarten — you know, that’s unprecedented,” he said. “So we have real space issues we have to address, and we think that that 200 million being freed up is for better and more pressing uses. Pre-K could also be an option, but we have not made that determination.”

C.B. 1’s Joyce, a P.S. 234 parent who agrees with the goal of expanding pre-K, said she worries that there has been little talk of restoring the school cuts made during the last recession.

“We lost a million dollars at P.S. 234 [over three years], and we can self-fund,” she said. “What happens to the schools that can’t raise money? What are we going to say to them: We’re going to put a pre-K in your neighborhood and you know what? We’re not going to refund any of your special education programs, your literacy programs….”