Bronx Housing Boom Could Crowd Classrooms

P.S. 214 Choir

Choir students at P.S. 214 kick off a community education meeting with Department of Education officials at their school in West Farms, Bronx on Oct. 8. (Cassandra Basler/NY City Lens)

Dozens of primary school kids clustered together, ready to head home, as their backpacks bumped against each other in the cement courtyard at P.S. 214 on a recent Monday afternoon in West Farms. Meanwhile, middle school students finished their lunch in the cafeteria, where elementary school students used to line up for dismissal, said PTA President Migdalia Moure, 56.

Two schools—and more than 1,000 students—occupy P.S. 214’s three-story building in the Bronx. That’s nowhere near overcrowding levels in other schools. At the Walton Avenue School in the South Bronx, for example, nearly 260 primary school students attend classes in an area built for 60, according to a recent article in the New York Post. But the big number of students does cause a bit of confusion on occasion.

“The dismissal gets a little crazy sometimes,” said Moure, whose 7-year-old grandson is a second grader here. “But other than that, we share good.”

Overcrowding may not be an issue in schools like P.S. 214 now, but it could get a whole lot worse in a few years. By next fall, students at P.S. 214 will study down the street from the construction zone of the Bronx’s largest private real estate development to date: a 1,300-unit, 10-building mixed-income housing project called Compass Residences. The development company, Signature Urban Properties, plans to break ground on two buildings down the street from the school in June 2015. The project would bring more than 200 new tenants to the former industrial zone— and more potential students. Neighborhood residents and community activists worry an already crowded public school building may be further squeezed with hundreds of new residents’ kids.

“We are trying to plant the seed for people and start raising awareness now. In another five years we are going to have thousands of units and today, the schools are totally overcrowded,” said Ivine Galarza, the manager for Community Board Six that includes West Farms. According to Galarza, the time to address school overcrowding is now, before the influx of new students further strains school resources in West Farms.

Last year, P.S. 214 had roughly 30 students per fifth grade class, which is already 15 percent higher than the citywide average, according to data from the Department of Education preliminary class size database. But by 2020, the Department of City Planning environmental impact study from 2011 estimates that more than 1,200 school-age children would move into West Farms once the new apartments are finished.

In the School Construction Authority’s capital plan, the educational facilities budget for 2014-2019, more than $100 million dollars will go towards the construction of two new schools in District 12, which includes West Farms. But the projects would create just 900 of the estimated 1,200 new seats needed.

That’s not to say that the developers are averse to trying to work with the neighborhood to alleviate potential overcrowding.

At a community board meeting on Sept. 10, Gifford Miller, Signature Urban Properties co-founder, said he planned to “give away” an 88,000-square foot lot to the School Construction Authority for a new elementary school.

Signature Urban Properties’ public relations manager, Jake Mendlinger, clarified in an interview that once all 10 buildings are built, Miller would sell the land to the School Construction Authority for a dollar. That is, if the Department of Education can show that the new development caused overcrowding.

Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the School Construction Authority, confirmed the potential land deal in an email. “The developer has committed to providing land at no cost to the City,” said Feinberg. When asked how the DOE plans to measure need for additional school seats, Feinberg wrote, “At this point, it is really premature until the construction project is before approval boards.”

Other New York City developers have also set aside property for new schools, according to The Real Deal real estate news reports. Extell Development Company, for example, agreed to include a four-story K-8 school—the first new public school on the Upper West Side in decades—in its Riverside Center project after residents voiced concerns that the construction would only benefit the rich.

Mary Filardo, the executive director of the D.C.-based non-profit 21st Century School Fund, which advocates for quality public school facilities, said public-private partnerships for school construction could work. But, she said the city needs a comprehensive long-term plan.

“You can’t count on the developers to solve the issue of building public schools for children,” Filardo said. “They’re not going to do this out of the kindness of their hearts.”

To help plan school construction, the Department of Education produces an annual document called The Enrollment, Capacity & Utilization Report, or The Blue Book’, which tracks crowded classrooms.

Scott Stringer, city comptroller, audited the 2010-2012 reports and determined in July that the Department of Education failed to adequately measure overcrowding. A special committee, the Blue Book Working Group, has been formed to revise reporting standards.

The committee will likely have to take into account a new state law that passed in August. The law requires the School Construction Authority to study school-age population projection data, like births and building permits, to address overcrowding.

Nobody from the committee could be reached for comment regarding a long-term master plan for school construction.

In September, the Department of Education had not yet opened an online application for new school proposals. As of Oct. 14, 2014, the New School FAQ webpage displayed a blue graphic: “This site is not currently available. Please try again later…”.

“It appears they [The Department of Education and School Construction Authority] don’t want any more projects in the pipeline,” said an official in the Bronx Borough President’s Office, who asked that the name be withheld.

Meanwhile, Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Farina led a town hall meeting with the District 12 Community Education Council at P.S. 214 on Oct. 8. Farina did not discuss school overcrowding, the Blue Book committee, or new school construction.


Update: As of Oct. 20, 2014, the New School FAQ Page had been updated with construction news for this year. Information regarding new school proposals had not been added to the site.