‘There is panic’; School rezoning comes as shock

By Julie Bolcer

A Department of Education proposal to rezone schools in District 2 — covering most of Downtown and Lower Manhattan — met with overwhelming criticism from parents who attended a meeting Tuesday devoted to the Greenwich Village section of the plan.

Some 40 members of the public signed up to speak during the two-and-a-half-hour feedback session before the zoning committee of the Community Education Council at P.S. 11 in Chelsea. A slew of speakers, including parents and community leaders, rejected the proposal as a short-term solution that fails to address the longer-term challenges of schools’ capacity and overcrowding.

“There is panic,” said Keen Berger, a Community Board 2 member. She drew an analogy to the earthquake in August that caused New Yorkers to flee needlessly out of their buildings. “Instead of panic leading to doing the right thing, it leads to doing the wrong thing,” she said.

The proposal, first unveiled at a C.E.C. District 2 meeting last month, would affect Greenwich Village by permanently dividing the P.S. 3 zone from the P.S. 41 zone and ending residents’ current choice between the two elementary schools, which is unique to the area. The plan would also shift the current zoning lines southward, directing P.S. 234 families from Tribeca to the P.S. 3 zone, while placing P.S. 3 and P.S. 41 families in the P.S. 11 zone in Chelsea, and bumping P.S. 11 families up to the P.S. 33 zone, even farther north in Chelsea.

Children already enrolled in school and their siblings living in the current zone would not be subject to the proposal. Only incoming kindergarten students and those new to the system would be affected. The proposed changes would take effect in the 2012-’13 school year.

Ben Taylor, an associate planner in D.O.E.’s Office of Portfolio Management, said the rezoning was prompted by the fact that a new school will be opening at Peck Slip near the South St. Seaport in 2015 and the relocation of middle schools from P.S. 3 and P.S. 11, which opened up space. The rezoning aims to leverage this new capacity to address growing demand and reduce waitlists.

Nearly all parents who spoke, however, questioned the proposal and rationale. They argued that the rezoning, the third in as many years, would disrupt the community while doing little to solve the overcrowding problem. Statistics presented by the C.E.C. zoning committee showed that 75 percent of the elementary school class sections in District 2 have capacities that exceed D.O.E.’s excellence targets, with a need for more than 1,000 additional school seats in the next five years.

“I see it as a big enabler for the D.O.E. to not do the long-term things that need to get done,” said Patrice Duffy Johnson, who lives in the P.S. 33 zone.

Some wondered why it made sense to rezone now when a new school is expected to open in 2014 in the Foundling Hospital site at Sixth Ave. and 17th St. Others complained about the lack of accurate data about birth rates and school growth to inform the process.

Where Donald Maass lives with his family on Horatio St. would be zoned to Chelsea under the new proposal. He emphasized the potential negative impact on his son, who was adopted from Ethiopia and craves stability.

“Nothing against Chelsea, but our son doesn’t connect to Chelsea,” he said. “Greenwich Village is his home.”

Many parents spoke about feeling a loss of control and inability to plan. They said they chose their residences because of the school zones and did not welcome the proposed changes.

“We really busted our rumps trying to buy into that zone,” said Andrea Raphael, who moved into the P.S. 3/P.S. 41 area in March and has a daughter preparing for kindergarten. “People really do make their real estate decisions, especially in New York City, based on their school zones.”

A handful of speakers, however, saw the rezoning proposal in exactly the opposite way, calling it an initial step toward alleviating overcrowding.

Kelly Shannon, principal of P.S. 41, said that the plan would reduce “stress, uncertainty and a lack of cohesion regarding enrollment numbers.”

“Although choice is great, you often have real questions about ‘How much is my child getting when you have 32 in a classroom?’” she said. “When families know what their school is right from the start and invest in it, it makes better communities.”

Sandra Blackwood and Jennifer Lemberg, the P.T.A. co-presidents for P.S. 41, agreed.

“We’re hopeful,” said Blackwood. “It’s a first step in the right direction to get some information about who goes where so that better planning can be made.”

Lisa Siegman, the principal of P.S. 3, saw both sides of the issue.

“Having a choice zone has upsides and downsides,” she said to the seven members of the C.E.C. seated on the auditorium stage. “If changing the zoning solves the administrative issues, then maybe it’s worthwhile giving up the choice. I wish you the best of luck.”

A few parents expressed annoyance that Elizabeth Rose, the director of portfolio planning for D.O.E., did not attend the meeting after being on hand for similar events in Tribeca and on the Upper East Side this month. C.E.C. members said she had a scheduling conflict, but no senior decision makers attended in her absence.

“Rose is a hard-working person,” said Joshua Rogers, the father of a 2-year-old old son in Penn South. “But she has a supervisor. Someone should have been here.”

The meeting marked the third and final installment in the first round of public feedback sessions about the proposal, although e-mail and Facebook comments remain open. C.E.C., which has a vote on the changes, will review feedback and may suggest modifications to D.O.E, which will revise the proposal if necessary. Another round of public hearings could be possible, with Dec. 14 targeted as the vote date, according to zoning committee co-chairperson Eric Goldberg.

C.E.C members will hold a discussion on Mon., Oct. 17, that is open to the public but won’t be soliciting feedback. The next opportunity for public comment will take place at the calendared meeting on Wed., Oct. 26, at 6:30 p.m. at P.S. 116, 210 E. 33rd St.