After fielding criticisms earlier this week about the city’s policy of shutting down failing schools, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and the Department of Education took heat yesterday for the city’s frequent practice of co-locating multiple schools in the same building.
At an Education Committee hearing yesterday afternoon, City Council members grilled officials from the DOE about the controversial policy of opening new schools in buildings where other schools — sometimes as many as four — are already located. It’s a practice that critics say often pits schools against each other, exacerbates tensions between charters and traditional programs, and can take resources and space away from high-needs students. The city, though, says that co-locations are an efficient and necessary use of space, arguing that it can actually be an asset by encouraging collaboration and giving schools access to new resources.
The hearing today comes on the heels of Bloomberg’s announcement on Tuesday that he will be opening 54 new schools in the fall — which is part of his reform agenda that he says has raised students’ test scores and increased graduation rates across the city.
Co-location, like school closures, is one of a handful of Bloomberg’s education tactics that have fueled criticisms of the system of mayoral control that Bloomberg put in place when he stepped into office. The mayor’s authority over the school system — as opposed to the traditional model of elected boards — is currently an important topic of debate as pols gear up for the race to replace Bloomberg in 2013.
And the rhetoric of some City Council members at the heated hearing yesterday focused on larger frustrations with Bloomberg’s power over the school system.
“While some schools have shared buildings successfully for years, DOE’s increasing use of co-locations has become very divisive,” City Council member Robert Jackson, chair of the Education Committee, said at the start of the hearing. “In many cases, schools are moved multiple times to different sites, like so many chess pieces — with kids being the ultimate pawns who suffer from these disruptions.”
Jackson quickly brought up charter schools and the tension associated with opening them in buildings with district schools, saying, “Charter school co-locations generate the most controversy. Resource inequities often exist between co-located charter schools and their host district schools, fueling charges of separate and unequal education as well as the accusation that charters are favored by the Administration and the Department of Education.” He cited an instance he heard where disabled students had to walk a block and a half to use a “non-charter” school entrance.
Marc Sternberg, a deputy chancellor with the Dept. of Education, unsurprisingly painted a very different picture of co-locations: “Every school is always going to get its fair share of space, and in fact many co-located schools…get more than their fair share…Shared resources are an asset. Co-location can enable productive collaboration and bring additional resources to a building through shared services and supports.”
In terms of the impact of this policy, 895 schools are co-located in 328 buildings — which breaks down to 793 district schools sharing space with 102 charter schools. The Panel for Education Policy will be voting on 38 co-location proposals next week.
Sternberg, who said the city works to take advantage of “underutilized” space, added that there’s no way around this policy. “Co-location is a fact of life in New York City…[and] we have a responsibility — both educationally and fiscally — to use our public buildings in the most efficient manner possible.”
As is common with education hearings — whether on college-readiness, the department’s finances, or other divisive issues — the back-and-forth quickly got tense. The first questions came from reliably-quotable City Councilman Charles Barron, who is running for Congress. In his allotted five-minutes — which was more of a speech than a question — Barron set a confrontational tone for the hearing.
“First, I always like to preface my remarks with the failure of this education system. So I don’t want to disappoint you and not indicate to you how much of a failure this system has been for the 1.1 million children,” he said, citing the “shenanigans under mayoral control” and noting that only 13 percent of minority students are graduating college-ready — a statistic that Bloomberg critics have cited as the proof of his failure.
“Co-location has been nothing but chaos. If you go to some of the schools in our district, you will see that battles around co-location have taken away from [education],” he said.
Just so there was no confusion, he ended his statements, as the bell rang to indicate his time was up, saying, “I want to overall say in my last five seconds, you have been a dismal failure.”
City Councilman Jumaane Williams used similar language, saying, “Mayoral control hasn’t worked — just because I think some of the policies are bad — but also it doesn’t allow for anyone else to participate, and I’m not sure my questions will be answered…or even if it will make any changes, because this is the all-knowing administration, all-knowing mayor, the all-powerful mayor, the all-powerful DOE.”
Williams said he hopes that state lawmakers can successfully end mayoral control in the city.
City Councilwoman Letitia James, who is expected to run for public advocate, went so far as to say she would sue the city over its plan to put a fifth school in a building on Willoughby Avenue in her district in Brooklyn. She cited school safety, overcrowding, and the mixing of high school and intermediate students, among many concerns.
“The placement of a fifth school creates a domino effect of potential instability that will only impede the progress that we have made,” she said.
Sternberg, from the DOE, said that the building currently has a 66 percent utilization rate, noting that the addition of a new school would not, based on the location’s capacity, overcrowd the space. He also said that schools across the city successfully house multiple grade levels.
“I do not see co-locations as a fact of life,” James said. “I would better describing it as cramming.”