The Past, Present and Future of School Rezoning

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The battle over Downtown's schools

By Lillian Rizzo

Since October, parents have stood in school auditoriums, before panels and projectors, asking for the answer to a simple question: What school will their children attend in the fall?

These parents from Lower Manhattan neighborhoods have attended meetings at which the District 2 Community Education Council (CEC) and the city Department of Education (DOE) tried to figure out the best way to rezone neighborhoods for new schools being built to prevent wait lists. After three proposals and endless meetings where parents, community board members and local politicians voiced their opinions, a rezoning proposal was finally approved unanimously by the CEC on Wednesday, Dec. 14.

Although the new lines have been drawn and parents from Tribeca and the Financial District know where their children will attend school in September 2012, few are happy about the resolution. The discussion constantly circled back to the same theme at every meeting and conversation: Lower Manhattan needs more schools.

With so many people moving into Lower Manhattan, schools in the area have filled up over the past few years, creating wait lists for kindergarten classes. In response, the DOE has opened two new schools, P.S. 276 in Battery Park City and P.S. 397, the Spruce Street School, and plans to open two more by 2015. But the CEC argues this still isn't enough-once the new schools open, they will most likely have wait lists themselves.

However, without new schools, redrawing neighborhood lines wouldn't be necessary. When parents hear the word "rezoning," especially those with younger children about to attend pre-kindergarten or kindergarten, they are automatically frightened, which usually leads to fury.

"Last time, I was told we were being rezoned to P.S. 1; tonight, we're rezoned to P.S. 397. We're very helpless going through this process," said Tom Ryan, a Tribeca parent, at the Nov. 28 meeting. "I ask you to represent us and do the right job by us."

The DOE must rezone an area when new schools are created; otherwise, there would be no designated children to fill the seats. In the process of rezoning, existing schools come into question, especially those that are either overcrowded or under capacity. Neighborhood lines are redrawn in order to shift children to form balanced schools where classrooms aren't overcrowded.

"Rezoning is something you have to do when a new school opens, unless you make it a school without a zone-an 'option' or Magnet school," said Shino Tanikawa, CEC 2 president. "But because of overcrowding in Dist245rict 2 that's not a smart option. Now we need schools."

Since October, the DOE and CEC have been faced with rezoning Lower Manhattan, primarily because the Peck Slip School, which is set to open in 2015, doesn't have a zone. Before the building at 1 Peck Slip opens, two classes per grade will be incubated at the Tweed Courthouse, which usually holds incubator classes and offices for the DOE. Resolution 47, the CEC's name for the approved rezoning proposal, created a new zone for Peck Slip and slightly changed the zones for P.S. 397 and P.S. 89. The P.S. 234 zone in Tribeca was kept the same due to loud outcry from parents.

But now some parents are left questioning what this means for their children and their futures. Many people moved into certain neighborhoods specifically for the school it offered, and are now finding their children will attend different schools.

"Changing every year is not a good way to manage things because people live and thrive on children," said Amy Ellen Schwartz, New York University professor and director of the Institute of Education and Social Policy. "It matters where you're going to send your kid, the school they go to, the after-school program."

Schwartz referred to the last rezoning of Lower Manhattan, which took place in 2009 to create zones for P.S. 397 and P.S. 276. That process was a bit different than the one this year, Tanikawa admitted. Although the three-month proposal hearings were tiring and felt drawn out, she said the recent process went smoothly compared to 2009 when the DOE presented more than one proposal at a time for rezoning options.

"One thing we learned is when you present multiple proposals at one time?it divides the community," said Tanikawa. "That's exactly what happened in 2009. We had two proposals and two camps of supporters for them, and it turned into parents against parents. It was really awful."

This year the DOE only presented one proposal in October and continued to edit it based on CEC and parents' remarks. A major issue was the zone for P.S. 234, a school that is known for its lengthy wait lists. Over the past two years, the principal was able to add classrooms to the kindergartens, preventing overcrowding but delaying the opening of a middle school in the building. Currently, 6th-grade classrooms are being used for kindergartens, and the date of the junior high school opening continues to get pushed back. P.S. 234 has been slated for many years to expand to 6th grade (it currently goes to 5th grade.) Due to the need for kindergarten space, however, the school has been unable to incorporate 6th grade levels.

While the problems of rezoning, overcrowded classrooms and not enough seats have been plaguing Lower Manhattan community boards and the District 2 CEC since just before 2009, the problem actually started on 9/11. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the city feared people would leave Lower Manhattan and buyers and renters wouldn't want to move into the area. As the city rebuilt itself emotionally and physically, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to reinvigorate Lower Manhattan and assured citizens it was a prime place to live.

Millions of dollars were infused into the area, reviving businesses that were decimated on 9/11. There was also a push in building development outside of the Freedom Tower, with numerous apartment buildings springing up in the area. Within a few years, around 2005, the area was revived and became a hot spot for families to start their lives.

"As we look back on the past decade, and as the picture of what has happened here comes into sharper focus, I believe the rebirth and revitalization of Lower Manhattan will be remembered as one of the greatest comeback stories in American history," said Bloomberg in a Sept 6. speech at an event sponsored by the Asssociation for a Better New York, days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the area of Downtown Manhattan that comprises Community Board 1 grew by 77.2 percent since 2001, a remarkable rate. The population and number of apartments have more than doubled since the attacks.

Bloomberg pointed out that the city invested more than $260 million in park construction and expansion. He also pointed to the 19 new hotels, the millions of dollars put into apartment building expansion and the reconstructed streets and pipelines in the neighborhood, as well as the two new schools built and more than 4,000 seats added for incoming families.

But this, to some, doesn't seem to be enough. Eric Greenleaf, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business and a P.S. 234 parent, has done extensive research on Lower Manhattan communities and projected the number of children that will enter its schools by 2015. His numbers are drastically different from the DOE projections, another problem that he and the CEC and community board members continue to point out.

"The worst thing we've done is not gotten the scent of this problem a while ago," said Schwartz. "Probably this is not what anyone had hoped for."

This year, Downtown took in about 440 new students. Greenleaf projects that by 2015, when Peck Slip opens its doors, there will be about 600 incoming students, if not more. Greenleaf came to this conclusion by taking a count of the number of children born in the area in 2009, the incoming kindergartners of 2015, which increased by 46 percent.

"Even as we talk about zones for existing schools, in the background there is the worry that these schools aren't enough. Zones don't create seats, they're not a substitute for the schools we need," said Greenleaf. "People begin to worry. If these schools aren't enough, where will the kids go?"

Greenleaf, Tanikawa, CEC members and parents alike all seem to agree, and reiterated that the DOE doesn't grasp the situation they are faced with. Tanikawa has repeatedly suggested that developers should be held accountable. "When they build residential buildings, they should kick in an education fund that leads to building schools," she said at the Dec. 14 meeting. Tanikawa and Greenleaf both wondered if the city had mapped out every possible need for Lower Manhattan when revitalizing it.

"When [the DOE] says,'We built all of these schools, why build more?' they're saying to all of these Downtown families, 'You moved here because we asked you to. Now move out,'" said Greenleaf.

When DOE representatives and Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who held a town hall meeting Dec. 7 with the CEC, are confronted with the call for more schools, they point to the two that were just opened and to the Peck Slip School and Foundling Hospital School, which will open in a few years. The problem still remains, however, that the longer it takes to build and open these schools, the more wait lists and overcrowding occurs, forcing people back to the rezoning board.

"For five to six years now, parents'number-one concern is the more kids we have, the more schools we will need," said Michael Markowitz to Walcott at the Dec. 7 meeting. "I completely reject rezoning as a tool to rebalance areas."

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