Options for Relieving School Overcrowding are Hotly Debated

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By Lillian Rizzo

The Department of Education rolled out a new rezoning plan last week in the hope of settling the growing problem of overcrowded schools in Lower Manhattan and increasing waitlists for kindergartens.

But it looks like the DOE is the only one that is content with this new rezoning plan.

While the DOE looks to new zones as the answer, parents, elected officials and Community Board 1 see only one real resolution to this problem: Open more schools as the population increases.

"I have a lot of heartache because a lot of parents say they don't want zoning to be a rebalancing tool," said Michael Markowitz, council member of the Community Education Council for District 2, at the DOE's Nov. 8 rezoning proposal meeting. At the meeting, the DOE's Elizabeth Rose presented its latest proposal, outlining new zones for children in Tribeca, the West Village, Chinatown and the Financial District.

The rezoning will only go into effect if the CEC approves it within the next 45 days, though CEC and CB1 members think there is a possibility they may extend this time limit for the sake of pending amendments.

The latest proposal looks to relieve pressure on P.S. 234 on Greenwich Street, a school that grapples with waitlists yearly. It also creates a smaller zone for the Peck Slip School, set to open in 2015, and changes the zone of the newly opened Spruce Street School, P.S. 397.

According to the latest plan, a new zone for the upcoming school at the Foundling Hospital location in Chelsea will be instituted when it is opened in 2014, along with one for the Peck Slip School. Another major challenge was a split of Tribeca's zones-under the proposal, children who live east of West Broadway and north of Murray Street will be zoned for P.S. 1, in Chinatown. These children are currently zoned for P.S. 234 and P.S. 397.

"We asked the DOE to leave the P.S. 234 zone the way it was and they decided to take the northeast piece and send it to P.S. 1, which doesn't have room-and parents don't want to go there anyway," said Paul Hovitz, co-chair of CB1's Youth Committee.

"This plan brings zones in line with what the community needs and what schools can provide, and addresses the feedback we heard during our last proposal," said DOE spokesman Frank Thomas.

There was widespread criticism, especially from the CEC and CB1, about the Peck Slip School, which just received an increase of seats. Before children can enter the school itself at 1 Peck Slip, they are attending classes at its incubation site at the Tweed Courthouse.

Currently, Tweed offers room for two classrooms per grade, though when Peck Slip opens there will actually be four classrooms per grade. A shared request from the CEC and CB1 was made to increase the incubation classes to three per grade and tackle exactly what a few rooms on the bottom floor of Tweed are being used for.

"Even if it means putting staff in a trailer for a year, I want to see it happen," said Shino Tanikawa, CEC president. "We gained another section in the school but the zone is smaller."

Until Peck Slip is opened, students attending classes at Tweed will automatically be transferred into the specified zone for Peck Slip, if the plan is approved. But Rose argues that increasing the number of classes in Tweed doesn't work-there's not enough room and trailers cost too much money for a temporary expense.

The last time the DOE rezoned Lower Manhattan due to its increasing population was three years ago. While parents, community members and the CEC bickered with the DOE over the flaws of its plan, there was really only one solution they all agreed on: open more schools to relieve the pressure instead of shuffling kids around neighborhoods.

"Don't split up communities like parts of northern Tribeca" said Julie Menin, president of CB1, at the CEC meeting. "Additional schools in the Community Board 1 district are needed for additional growth in areas."

"They basically rezone to respond to new schools," said Hovitz following the meeting. Currently, Hovitz and CB1 are coming up with amendments to the rezoning plan, although he is unsure if they will actually be used if requested by the CEC. The DOE has not responded on whether amendments to the proposal are possible.

Photo: The proposed rezoning from the Dept. of Education.

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