Anger builds as school waitlists linger

BY JOSH ROGERS  |  “These are our lives — these are our lives,” Jessica Whitney Gould told Dept. of Education officials Friday. She was hoping they’d get the sense of urgency she and Downtown parents are feeling waiting to find out where their 5-year-old children are going to go to school.

“Our son lives in the dining alcove,” she said.  “Why? Because we’re in a great neighborhood in a great school zone. Our lease is up. Do we sign for another year?”

Gould, who’s hoping for a spot at P.S. 234 in Tribeca, was one of three waitlisted parents invited to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s School Overcrowding Task Force meeting Fri., May 10.

Frustration filled the room as Education officials said it would take another month to come up with a plan to find alternate spaces somewhere in Manhattan (the officials ruled out busing the children over the Brooklyn Bridge).

The anger did not just come from waitlisted parents or the Lower Manhattan school advocates — even principal Terri Ruyter of P.S 276 chastised the officials for continuing to wait to look for temporary space to relieve the problem.

“I  just think it’s a day late and a dollar short,” she told them.  “I’m a Board of Ed employee — I’m also a parent and a taxpayer. I find it unconscionable that this is a continuing problem, that I spend monthly afternoons here listening to the same old thing time after time….

“I don’t know who’s making the decisions. I’m sure you  would help us if you could — somebody is getting in the way  of making this happen.”

Ruyter got angry after Ben Goodman, the director of the D.O.E.’s Manhattan office of public affairs, responded to a question from Silver about possible temporary school sites including former Battery Park City Parks Conservancy space.

Goodman said the next task force meeting to talk about longer term school planning was already scheduled for June 12, and he would take the site suggestions back to the D.O.E. He did not say whether the city would then have enough time to convert a temporary space for September.

Ruyter said the conservancy space had already been leased to a private preschool and the city continues to let missed opportunities slip away.

Silver, one of Albany’s power brokers, insisted the city officials come back with answers, and he proposed several dates until he found one, June 7, that the principals could also attend. He also asked that the Education Dept. send him temporary and alternate sites under consideration by May 24.

“We need solutions down here because it’s not acceptable, because parents want their children in neighborhood schools,” Silver said.

Overall, the waitlist number of 110 is down from 148 a month ago, but the principals of P.S. 89 and 234 both said their lists each would have shrunk by four more if not for the proposal to move P.S. 150 from Tribeca to Chelsea.

P.S. 150 is a non-zoned choice school in which most children live in Lower Manhattan.

In response to the surprise announcement a few weeks ago, the city has allowed incoming P.S. 150 kindergarten students who turned down offers at their zoned school to go to the front of those waiting lists.

Chloe Ching, a parent waiting for a seat at P.S. 89, said she was hopeful when she moved up to eight on her list, but then she was bounced back down to 12 to make room for P.S. 150 parents.

She said she was willing to sacrifice a possible pre-K seat for her 3-year-old in a year if it would help.

“I would gladly give up my seat for my [youngest child] if it meant my five-year-old got into a decent school,” she said.

There are about 15 seats currently available at Spruce Street School, P.S. 89 and Peck Slip School, but the principal of Spruce, Nancy Harris, said she was told not to accept any waitlisted students zoned for other schools, and Ronnie Najjar, the 89 principal, said she was also told to hold off filling up the last few slots.

After the meeting, Gentian Falstrom, director of elementary school admissions, said she would consider making offers for the eight or nine Spruce slots before mid-June.

“We’re going to take a look at that,” she said.

She also told one waitlisted parent, “I hate this, I really do.”

Devon Puglia, a D.O.E. spokesperson, did not explain why there was a delay in offering parents the available seats.

Paul Hovitz, co-chairperson of Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee, said the board has been working with a realtor looking for sites below Canal St., but the city needs to move more quickly.

“We do have sites that easily could be ready a year from September,” Hovitz said.

One of these sites could be the new home for P.S. 150, Hovitz said, which would likely reduce the number of families currently looking to move to one of the zoned schools.

Hovitz said for this September more temporary classroom space could be added to the D.O.E. headquarters at Tweed Courthouse.

“These rooms have been split with dividers before,” he said.

The building has four large classrooms that each could be divided in two, Hovitz said, and the other two rooms are smaller, but may be able to be divided too. In addition, Eric Greenleaf, another of the Downtown school advocates, has said there is room on the first floor to add  an additional classroom, bringing the potential expansion to seven rooms.

The Education Dept.’s Puglia said expanding Tweed is not under consideration at the moment.

The classrooms are currently being used as “incubator space” for Peck Slip, which is only taking in two kindergarten classes a year, but will be able to accommodate five when the permanent building opens in 2015.

Gould, who said her family is jammed in a one bedroom apartment Independence Plaza, also told the education officials she was shocked that things were moving so slowly.

“I’m hoping this is just a poker face and things are actually happening,” she said. “I’m floored.”

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