Our School, Our Jewel

Who will step up to the plate for the school children of El Barrio?

While turning gyms, and science labs into classrooms called "cluster rooms" seems to be one of the city Department of Education's (DOE) solutions for overcrowded schools, a five-story school slumbers with empty rooms in East Harlem, P.S. 109. It was saved from the wrecking ball in 1999 by the Coalition to Save PS 109.

The building has a new roof, is structurally sound, and has been listed to the National Register of Historic Places.

Why crowd existing schools when an empty school building is available? Between the years 1993 and 1995, PS 109, located at 215 East 99th St., was in the capital plan for repairs and restoration.

The children were to be temporarily placed in other schools during restoration.

In 1995, Superintendent Evelyn Castro, received word from then mayor David Dinkins that PS 109 had been cut from the capital budget. So where did the money go?

City Council member Robert Jackson asserted in his Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit that the money for the children of New York City was used to improve schools in other parts of the state. Jackson sued the state for the loss of $14.6 billion and won.

Gov. George Pataki has been ordered to return these funds back to New York City.

Mayor Bloomberg stated that he would use $5 billion dollars from these funds towards restoration and new school construction.

Currently, there is a proposal to allow Artspace, a Minneapolis-based non-profit organization, and East Harlem Operation Fightback, to convert PS 109 into artist, loft apartments. The plan calls for 50 percent of the apartments to be offered to local low-income artists. The remaining fifty percent would be offered at market rate.

This plan would be fine if we had a surplus of classroom space.

At a time when the city could gain a significant amount of money for schools through Jackson's lawsuit, should we be giving away precious school space? PS 109 could provide as many as 1200 new seats for the children of East Harlem.

In the past, the city has been so short of space to build new schools it actually considered using places such as former dry cleaning plants; such was the case in Harlem in the 1990s.

In May 1999, the Department of Education estimated 75,000 new seats were required to relieve overcrowding and to accommodate enrollment growth. DOE's five-year plan called for the creation of 58,000 new seats through construction and leasing.

If all those had been created, it still would have found itself almost 17,000 seats short of its goal by 2004.

DOE's 2005-2009 five-year capital plan calls for the creation of 107 new facilities containing more 66,000 new seats to relieve overcrowding in Kindergarten through grade three. It is opening seven small high schools and middle schools inside other school buildings. Opening a new school inside an already operating school seems like more overcrowding.

Utilizing existing empty school buildings is the answer.

A proposed 2006 amendment to DOE's current five-year plan is calling for rehabilitation of existing buildings like PS 109.

An injustice occurred in 1995 when the Board of Education reneged on its promise and sent our dollars elsewhere. PS 109 should be restored and reused as a school within the New York City School System.

Please contact Mayor Bloomberg and DOE Chancellor Joel Klein and urge them to not give away our school for a use that would only serve a few. PS 109 could educate thousands of children for years.

This is the wisest use of the space. Our school, our jewel dedicated to the children to New York.

-- May 15, 2006