Squadron: ‘DOE has pitted neighbor against neighbor’ in rezoning battle

October 2, 2015 By Claude Scales Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Map courtesy of New York City Department of Education
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At the Sept. 30 Community Education Council for District 13 (CEC 13) meeting, held at P.S. 307, Department of Education (DOE) planners presented their proposal to change the zones of P.S. 8, located in Brooklyn Heights, and P.S. 307, located in Vinegar Hill adjacent to the Farragut Houses, a public housing project. The proposed realignment of the two schools’ zones has not changed since it was discussed at previous meetings, and would greatly reduce the size of P.S. 8’s zone by placing all of DUMBO and Vinegar Hill in P.S. 307’s zone. The planners added a new detail to the proposal: moving the Satellite West Middle School, which now shares P.S. 307’s building, to the recently completed high rise building at Dock Street in DUMBO.

The planners showed a series of charts that they argued justifies their proposal. Projections of growth in both zones show that without rezoning, overcrowding at P.S. 8 will become worse. Meanwhile, P.S. 307’s facilities, they said, will remain under-utilized. They showed how they arrived at these projections, based on anticipated new residential construction as well as other factors. Moving the middle school out of P.S. 307’s building will open more classrooms for use by the larger number of students attending the elementary school after rezoning, they said.

The planners listed benefits that they said would accrue to P.S. 307, its students and District 13 as a whole after rezoning. These include: “a stable and reliable enrollment”; adding 300 new elementary school seats to the district as a result of moving the middle school; greater funding and more programming for P.S. 307 because of its larger student body; giving more students access to P.S. 307’s “unique programs,” which include Mandarin, chess, violin, ASD Horizon and pre-K; and more faculty and administrative staff.

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Reaction to the proposals by councilmembers was generally guarded and critical. A common theme of the remarks was that the rezoning proposal, along with the middle school relocation, affected the entire District 13 and other schools in it as well as the three directly affected schools.

Council First Vice President Ed Brown said, “This is not a done deal.” Second Vice President Benjamin Greene, a P.S. 307 parent, questioned the planners’ assertion that a larger student body would result in greater funding. Councilmember Vascilla Caldeira said, “We are not tools of the DOE.” Amy Shire, a P.S. 8 parent, said she thought “the proposal has merit,” but that the lack of time to consider it was a “major concern” and that it would have “ripple effects.” Council President David Goldsmith faulted the DOE for “poor planning” and noted that in any rezoning proposal, consideration of diversity “is essential.”

After the councilmembers gave their responses, representatives of the P.S. 8 and P.S. 307 Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA) were invited to speak. Ansley Samson, representing P.S. 8, urged the Council to approve the proposed rezoning, stressing the need to plan for the change and to provide affected parents with certainty now. P.S. 307 PTA Co-president Farjai Hannah Jones said the Council should reject the proposal because more time is needed to get community involvement and consider options.

The next speaker was the Rev. Dr. Mark V.C. Taylor, pastor of the Church of the Open Door, which is located close to the Farragut Houses and to P.S. 307.  He made an impassioned plea to the Council to vote against the proposal, which he characterized as “P.S. 8 centric,” and denounced the failure of the DOE to consult with the P.S. 307 community, which he characterized as typical of the lack of concern shown to the needs and views of minority and poor communities.

Several elected officials or their representatives then made statements. State Sen. Daniel Squadron was scathing in his criticism of the DOE for its failure to anticipate problems resulting from rapid residential development and other changes in Brooklyn. He said he regretted that the need to rezone P.S. 8 had forced the DOE to face these issues, and hoped the discussion of the rezoning would cause the DOE to become more proactive. “If you think the DOE has pitted neighbor against neighbor, it’s because it has.”

City Councilmember Steve Levin said he wouldn’t try to tell the Council what to do, but held the DOE “largely responsible” for P.S. 307 parents’ feeling “blindsided and rushed.” He also took partial responsibility, saying he should have notified the P.S. 307 community when he first knew the rezoning plan was in the works.

State Assemblymember Walter Mosley said P.S. 8’s overcrowding is “likely to increase,” noting the “exploding” residential development in the area, which is placing stresses on local infrastructure and public services. He urged delay on decisions regarding rezoning, concluding that this is “not a local but a national issue.” A representative of state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery said she believes more time is needed, and that she is proud of how CEC 13 has handled the issue. A representative of Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon said she “is very concerned about the rezoning proposal and by the lack of community outreach.”  

Dan Wiley, from the office of Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, noted that P.S. 307 is designated as a magnet school and receives federal grants. He said Velazquez recognizes the need for all schools to get more resources. CEC 13 member Rob Underwood asked if P.S. 307’s magnet school status had been considered in the DOE planners’ projections, and if it would be affected by the rezoning. DOE planner Greg Whitten said it had been considered and would not be affected.  

Members of the public were then invited to comment. Of those who did, all but a few urged the Council to reject the proposed rezoning. Most were P.S. 307 parents or alumni, or both, although some DUMBO parents also expressed reservations about the plan and counseled further study. The final speaker noted that P.S. 307 presently receives federal funds under Title One, which are directed to schools that have a majority of students from poor families, and asked if the influx of students from relatively affluent DUMBO would affect the school’s qualification for these funds. After the meeting adjourned, DOE Office of District Planning Director Tim Castanza told him that eligibility for Title One funds hinges on whether the school has sixty percent or more of its students eligible for free lunches.

The thrust of the comments from P.S. 307 parents and advocates can be characterized as: “This is our school, we’re proud of it and its accomplishments and what it’s doing for our children and we don’t want to lose control of it.”

What comes next? The CEC has yet to vote on the proposal. It has another meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 20.  Comments, questions or suggestions may be emailed to the CEC at [email protected], to the District 13 Superintendent at [email protected] and to the Office of District Planning at [email protected]. Emails should have the subject line D13 Zoning. You may also phone the superintendent’s office at (718) 636-3284.

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