Quinn, Downtown parents press Gerson on mayor’s school cuts


By Ronda Kaysen

Alan Gerson is stuck between a rock and a City Council speaker when it comes to funding two new Downtown elementary schools.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson tempered his criticisms of the mayor after City Council Speaker Christine Quinn voiced her support for Bloomberg’s decision to delay 21 school construction projects until the state kicks in money owed the city.

The only Manhattan schools on the list – a new K-8 on Beekman St. and an annex for P.S. 234 in Tribeca – sit squarely in Gerson’s district. Both schools were part of an agreement brokered between Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and developers to build new schools in exchange for selling public land to residential developers. Gerson signed and negotiated the 2004 agreement.

When word trickled out last week that funding was not included for the two schools, Gerson and residents lashed out at Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “It is pure politics that the mayor is singling out these two schools,” Gerson told Downtown Express last week, describing the mayor’s actions as “disingenuous” and the actions of both the mayor and governor as “disgusting.”

On Wednesday, after a day of meetings with Speaker Quinn, Gerson had revised his position on the mayor. “We’re all united,” he told Downtown Express. Bloomberg “is right about demanding the full $6 billion from the governor, he’s wrong about putting these two schools on the chopping block. There’s no contradiction.”

A six-classroom P.S. 234 annex was explicitly included in the agreement, which said it would open concurrently with Site 5B, a development slated to open in 2007. The new annex would have alleviated crowding at a school that is already at 120 percent capacity and will soon be further burdened by 700 new residential units created by the agreement. The agreement also said, “the city has provided $44 million in the Dept. of Education Capital Plan to develop a new school for grades pre-K-8 in Lower Manhattan.” It said nothing about those funds being contingent upon the state budget.

Last February, a site for a new pre-K-8 was secured inside a 75-story Bruce Ratner mixed-use tower. The mayor attended the February press conference and personally endorsed the school. He released a statement saying the deal fulfilled a “promise” to Downtown residents.

Speaker Quinn stood with Bloomberg, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten at a Monday afternoon press conference and pledged to send “a unified message to Albany.”

“The city of New York is sick and tired of waiting and we are not going to wait any longer,” Quinn said at the press conference. “If we don’t get the money that we deserve then the cuts that the mayor is talking about may be a reality.”

According to Bloomberg, the city cannot fund the critical construction projects until the state starts to make good on a court ruling ordering it to pay $5.6 billion a year in operating expenses to city schools and a lump sum of $9 billion for school construction. The court order has been stayed pending an appeal and the governor claims the city is already getting all of the money it is owed.

Local residents have grown increasingly angry with the mayor in recent days. On Thursday, a group of P.S. 234 parents plans to protest a city-organized groundbreaking for Site 5B in Tribeca, the residential development that is scheduled to open in conjunction with the P.S. 234 annex. The mayor, Speaker Sheldon Silver and Gerson are scheduled to attend the 12:30 p.m. event at St. John’s University on Murray St.

Gerson voiced his support for parents protesting the event, and said none had asked him to boycott it. He sees no conflict with attending the groundbreaking with a mayor who has not followed through on part of the agreement. “The groundbreaking is strictly ceremonial. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by postponing the groundbreaking,” he said, however, “If we have to postpone the project, we will have opportunities to do so.”

In the bizarre balancing act that is city politics, Gerson is both attending the groundbreaking with the mayor and considering litigation to force him to make good on his part of the agreement.

The mayor gave no indication that the development might be stalled until the schools could be built. “We don’t have the right to say to somebody that they can’t” build, Bloomberg said. “If they have a building permit they can do it.”

Parents see the groundbreaking as a symbolic example of a broken promise, calling Bloomberg a “liar” in their press release and dubbing the event a “promise-breaking.”

“A lot of the parents and kids feel like they’re pawns in the mayor’s game,” said P.S. 234 P.T.A. president Kevin Doherty. “It really is a game. The mayor agreed in writing and now he’s going back on his word.”

The political battle over the money is shaping up to be a fierce one. Last week, Speaker Silver, who played a key role in securing the Beekman St. site for the East Side K-8, said in a statement that the mayor “is now reneging on a commitment seemingly made only to further his bid for reelection.”

At the Monday press conference, Bloomberg ratcheted up his rhetoric against the State, laying blame with Governor Pataki, Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Joe Bruno. “All [Silver] has got to do is come through with the money,” the mayor said. The promise to build a new 630-seat school on Beekman St. “is not a hollow promise and you can tell Shelly [Silver] that our commitment was contingent on the state doing what was right.”

The state speaker, however, “stands exactly where he stood last week and last year. He will fight to ensure that the funding is available,” said Silver spokesperson Charles Carrier.

Local residents are lining up with Silver—not Bloomberg—on the issue. Community Board 1 Chairperson Julie Menin met with the Speaker last Friday and secured his support. “He assured me unequivocally that the schools will be built,” she said.

The community was never informed that funding for the schools might be in doubt and Bloomberg’s sudden reversal has put the community’s trust with the city into question. “There was never a question that these schools were going to get built. For these schools to be put in jeopardy is really wrong,” said Menin. “This is very upsetting and it’s playing politics with the kids and it’s flat wrong and we’re not going to stand for it.”

The $64-million Beekman St. school has already secured $20 million in funding from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Gerson worries L.M.D.C. funds are at risk if the school is delayed. “The City Council will recognize that we don’t want to lose $20 million in L.M.D.C. funding, which will be a loss for the entire city,” he said.

L.M.D.C. has given no indication that it will renege on the money. “L.M.D.C. money is committed and will be available when the project moves forward,” L.M.D.C. spokesperson John Gallagher wrote in an e-mail to Downtown Express. 

In the coming days, Gerson will continue to walk the tightrope of city politics. On Friday, he plans to hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall with Speaker Silver, Speaker Quinn and Community Board 1 about the schools.

Menin said she asked the mayor about the school money Wednesday and he told her to call the governor.


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