Poor kids losing turf war
By Juan Gonzalez 

There is no more disturbing example of the growing divide between the rich and the poor in this city than a plan the Bloomberg administration has hatched for upgrading and doubling the number of sports fields at Randalls Island Park.Under the deal, one that Parks Department officials quietly negotiated during the past year without soliciting bids, 20 of Manhattan's richest private schools will have exclusive use every weekday afternoon for the next 30 years to more than 50 new and refurbished athletic fields at Randalls Island.

That's an average of three fields each per private school.

Meanwhile, thousands of poor and working-class students who attend 58 public schools in nearby East Harlem must make do today with eight neighborhood baseball and soccer fields for all of their after-school sports.

And one of those fields, at 96th St. and Second Ave., is slated to disappear as a staging area for construction of the Second Ave. subway line.

Parks officials see nothing wrong with giving rich private schools enough new "public" fields for them to schedule several games per day, while the East Harlem schools will be lucky to find a free field a couple of times a month.

"This is an incredible plan to privatize Randalls Island," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who also challenged the city's award of a no-bid contract on the islands for a privately run water park.

Along with city Controller William Thompson, Stringer opposed the ballfield plan in a recent preliminary vote of the city's Franchise and Concession Review Committee. Stringer has vowed to continue his fight, even though Bloomberg controls the majority of the votes on the committee. East Harlem and South Bronx leaders already are planning a lawsuit to stop the deal.

The current deal calls for the city to shell out nearly $70 million in capital funds for the project. The private schools would then repay bonds over 30 years, plus provide $400,000 per year for maintenance in exchange for guaranteed use of 80% of the 68 new ballfields that will be created.

Parks officials and the Randalls Island Sports Foundation, the public-private group that runs the island, claim everyone will win. The private schools will get more ballfields and the general public will benefit because all the fields will be available on weekends and during the summer when there's no school.

Moreover, proponents say, many of the private schools, such as Dalton, Spence and Chapin on the upper East Side and Columbia Grammar, Trinity and Dwight on the upper West Side have been using a smaller group of 30 rundown fields on Randalls Island for decades, so the new arrangement merely continues an old practice.

Community leaders, however, see a sweetheart deal for the children of Manhattan's rich and powerful.

They note that the private schools have used the ballfields at Randalls Island for years largely because they can afford to pay bus transportation there.

"I'm very sympathetic to try and get more schoolkids out there," said Richard Davis, chairman of the Randall's Island Sports Foundation.

So far "the public has found it difficult to use Randalls Island," Davis added.

City officials, for their part, have done nothing to improve access. The only footbridge from East Harlem to the island is closed every year between late October and March, and there has been no progress on proposals to build a new footbridge from the Bronx.

Stringer notes that the school funding problems will soon change, with the billions of dollars in new money the Department of Education is expecting over the next few years, thanks to a state court decision on the funding of city schools.

Some of that money could revive after-school public school sports programs - and now is not the time to lock up Manhattan's biggest complex of athletic fields with a 30-year contract to private schools, Stringer says.

Community leaders also are furious over the secrecy and sole-source nature of the ballfields plan, something that's become all too typical of the Bloomberg administration.

Parks officials spent more than a year negotiating with the private schools, yet they did not inform the East Harlem community board of the unusual financing scheme and special arrangement until a couple of months ago.

"It burns me up the mayor is making this deal to take care of his friends and my sons won't be able to use these fields," said Patrick Sullivan, a parent who has two boys attending PS 77 on E. 95th St.

As long as there is no accountability, these kinds of things are going to keep happening, said East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito.

"The Randall's Island Sports Foundation thinks they can operate with impunity and they have to be called on the carpet," she said.

Originally published on October 25, 2006