Hail Mary hall pass: City scratches Williamsburg school cram plan at 11th hour

Civics education: Brian Leavy DeVale, principal of PS 257 on nearby Cook Street, spoke out against the proposal to fit a third school in the Williamsburg building that already contains two and called Mayor Bloomberg a “tyrant.”
Photo by Ellen Moynihan

A plan to cram a third school into a Williamsburg building that is already home to two is off the table, possibly for good, after the city bowed to intense community pressure in the final hours before the last meeting on such measures of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration.

The Department of Education nixed the cram proposal in an e-mail to the administration of elementary school PS 196 on Bushwick Avenue, which already shares a schoolhouse with the middle school MS 582, a few hours before it was to be voted on at a meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy. The panel is dominated by appointees of the mayor who is a major proponent of so-called “co-locations.”

“Based on feedback from the broader District 14 community and in the interest of pursuing other ways to increase access to quality middle school options, the Department of Education has determined that it will not move forward with the new school proposal,” the e-mail said.

The last-minute reversal followed a month of opposition from parents, teachers, elected officials, and neighborhood school representatives, including a 300-person protest at the only public hearing on the third school proposal. Opponents of the idea said it would crowd out valuable elective classes and extracurricular activities and hailed the latest decision as proof of strength in numbers.

“It’s nice to know that, from time to time, you can fight City Hall and win,” said District 14 Community Education Council President Tesa Wilson, who called the education department racist and said it would not have proposed such a plan in a majority-white shool.

City officials said the outcry made them take the triple-decker idea out of the running, for now.

“As with all proposals, we sought out and listened to feedback from the community,” said education department spokesman Harry Hartfield. “As a result, we decided not to co-locate a new district middle school in the building at this time and withdrew our proposal.”

But the plan may be dead for good, provided Democratic mayoral nominee Bill DeBlasio wins Tuesday’s election and sticks to his campaign script. DeBlasio is leading opponent Joe Lhota by 39 percent in the latest poll and has proposed a citywide moratorium on the school squeezing that has been a trademark of Bloomberg’s administration. The Panel for Educational Policy is comprised of 13 members, eight of whom are mayor-appointed, while the rest are selected for their seats by each of the five borough presidents.

To head off a repeat of the education department’s finding that the Williamsburg school building is under-used, activists there are now working to come up with suggestions for how to grow the two schools. So far, they have come up with creating a gifted and talented program, adding language programs, and creating an adult education curriculum, but such programs would depend on increased funding from the city.

“We want to find ways to grow this school and make it more appealing,” said Robert Burstein, an English as a Second Language teacher at PS 196 elementary school.

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.

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