School construction budgets lag need for new seats, Council told

P.S. 94 in the Bronx was expanded by the School Construction Authority, but Councilmember Oliver Koppel says the district still suffers overcrowding. Photo: SCA

The number of elementary classrooms with more than 30 students tripled over the last three years, and budget cuts are strapping the city’s ability to ease overcrowding, according to testimony presented Monday to the City Council.

In the 2008-2009 school year, 9,756 children in first through fifth grades were in such classrooms. This year, that number has “ballooned” to 31,079 students, found a report prepared by Councilmember Brad Lander of District 39, which includes areas in and around Park Slope in Brooklyn.

The report only focused on elementary schools, but the problem of overcrowding in New York City’s schools pervades all levels. The City Council’s committee on education discussed the issue at a budget hearing Monday, as it reviewed school construction costs and plans. A meeting on the New York City School Construction Authority’s expenses is scheduled for Tuesday.

After receiving more funding from the city, the authority boosted its budget by $126 million to secure funding for an additional 5,022 public school seats, bringing the total number of new seats to about 34,000. But that still falls far short of an estimated need of 50,000 seats.

“The continued budget limitations we face as a city and state leave a balance of 16,186 unfunded seats,” said Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for the New York City Department of Education’s operations division. “We understand that the public school system as a whole continues to experience pockets of overcrowding and we are working to address these concerns both through new school construction and through more efficient use of existing school facilities.”

But council members — citing frustration from parents, students and educators over crammed classrooms — say they need relief soon. “You mentioned pockets of overcrowding,” quipped Councilman Mark Weprin, a Democrat who represents neighborhoods in eastern Queens. “I guess we’d have to be wearing cargo pants.”

Even districts getting new seats can’t get them fast enough, say local officials. School district 10, which spans Riverdale, Kingsbridge and Norwood in the Bronx, will receive 1,400 new seats from the amended budget. Councilmember G. Oliver Koppell, a Democrat representing the district, says that still falls short of the community’s need. “It’s a step, but it’s not going to be enough to relieve the overcrowding,” Koppel said in an interview after the hearing. “It’s not sufficient. I don’t think we are getting any more in this capital plan, so we will have to wait for the next one.”

According to the Department of Education’s own report on classroom utilization, more commonly known as the “blue book,” classrooms in kindergarten through third grade reach target capacity at 20 students, while fourth and fifth grade do at 28.

City schools have a long way to go to meet such goals, said Leonie Haimson, a spokesperson from the education advocacy group Class Size Matters. “Over the last 10 years, the evidence is clear that the Bloomberg administration has entirely failed to make any significant progress in relieving school overcrowding and providing sufficient room for a quality education,” Haimson said in her testimony.

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