Fill in the blank: Chancellor skirts overcrowding questions at town hall

Fill in the blank: Chancellor skirts overcrowding questions at town hall
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

She got marks off for not showing her work.

Parents and teachers were disappointed at Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina for giving general answers to their specific questions during her town hall appearance at PS 204 in Dyker Heights on Oct. 25. The nabe’s School District 20 is the city’s most overcrowded, but Farina gave a blanket response to several questions on overcrowding, and her answer was less than substantial, said one educator.

“I felt overcrowding wasn’t really discussed deeply,” said Elizabeth Coluccio, a paraprofessional at a city-run Pre-K in Dyker Heights. “I would have liked to hear her talk about how that’s being dealt with more, because no one wants their child to be overlooked because there are too many kids in a classroom.”

District 20 includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and sections of Bensonhurst, Borough Park, and Sunset Park. It had the most jam-packed classrooms in the city last year — based on the number of students enrolled versus the district’s stated “capacity” — according to an Independent Budget Office study. The city has money to build 4,541 seats there by 2024, but even if it succeeds, it will still need 2,500 more to bring enrollment down to 100 percent of school capacity.

But the chancellor’s response only echoed statements that education officials have made for years — they are looking everywhere for suitable building space but cannot find any.

“We are looking at spaces everywhere,” Farina said. “And in fact, one of the major type of spaces that we are taking over is independent schools, parochial schools that have closed down. So we are looking at every kind of space.”

She had no response to specific questions, such as whether the city would buy the reportedly up-for-sale Angel Guardian Home — a block-sized former orphanage in Dyker Heights that locals leaders have said would make a good school.

Similarly, the city is considering granting private school Bay Ridge Prep a special permit to build a campus on an industrially zoned lot in Bay Ridge, and locals asked why Department of Education officials could not get similar exemptions for public schools, but the chancellor had no answer.

The meeting’s format kept Farina at arm’s length, locals said. Department of Education organizers asked attendees to write questions for the chancellor on index cards, and officials chose which cards to respond to — a too-curated approach that stifled meaningful conversation, according to one parent.

“I’m not a fan of the note card system, because I can’t have an organic conversation with them,” said Marisa Hanson, whose daughter attends the notoriously overcrowded PS 176 in Dyker Heights. “I would have liked a more specific update on [overcrowding], and not having a mic to walk up to and ask a question pretty much shuts that down.”

Parents were not able to ask follow-up questions after the meeting closed, and the chancellor was not available to reporters.

A member of the local school board defended the approach, saying the town-hall discussion would not solve problems such as overcrowding.

“Overcrowding is a fundamental problem here, but addressing it is going to take time,” said Bob Lee, the District 20 Community Education Council’s secretary. “There’s no quick answer.”

Farina discussed citywide topics including the common core, the importance of diversity in schools, and special education.

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at mspivack@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2517. Follow him on Twitter @carolinespivack.