Audit: Is Data Faulty that Determines School Space Needs?

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An audit released on Wednesday raises questions about the credibility of the numbers used by the city’s Department of Education to help determine where to build more schools, which schools to expand and which buildings have room to fit another school, among other things.

The Education Department's numbers are compiled annually in a document commonly known as Blue Book, which uses information on enrollment, number of classrooms and the square footage of instructional space to calculate the occupancy rate of each of the city’s schools.

The audit, by New York City Comptroller John C. Liu, found mistakes in the book, like classrooms measured at half their actual size and rooms used as classrooms that were not counted as such. In some cases, the mistakes led to an overestimation of a school’s occupancy, while in others, they made schools appear less crowded than they are.

The education department said the errors highlighted in the audit are not significant because they do not fundamentally change the school system’s building capacity scenario. In its response to the audit, the department pointed out that once the overstatements and understatements found in the audit are weighed against each other, the net result is insignificant.

The comptroller’s auditors said the department’s math makes no sense. If, for example, one school’s capacity is overestimated by 30 students and another school's is underestimated by the same number, the calculations would show a net result of zero. But, the audit says, “this methodology ignores the fact that each of these schools has a 30 percent error in its capacity.”

The auditors did not set out to question the accuracy of the numbers, though, but to test the way the numbers are gathered, reported and analyzed by the Education Department and its school construction arm, the School Construction Authority. Much of the information, like the way the rooms in the school are used, is collected by principals.

What the auditors found is that many of the principals they surveyed did not seem to understand the importance of the task, apparently because it had not been fully explained to them.

The auditors visited 23 schools and 145 rooms, a small fraction in a system of roughly 1,700 schools. The audit says, however, that the fact that errors were found should not be ignored, as they are indicative of broader problems that could lead to wrong conclusions about the way school buildings are used and occupied.

In its response, the department says that the intent of the Blue Book is “not to capture the specific functions and specific sizes of every room in every school building,” but to “calculate the capacity of our buildings and our building-level utilization rates in a systematic and uniform way.”

Highlighting errors made by principals in the functions and sizes of rooms that do not affect a school’s capacity data, as turned out to be the case of most of the rooms reviewed by the auditors, “misses the point,” it adds.

The audit and the department both acknowledge that the Blue Book is not the only source of information used when decisions are made about school construction or expansion, room conversions or zone reconfigurations, done to address overcrowding. Because of that, the department and the construction authority refused to implement one of the audit’s recommendations: to use the Blue Book data to identify overly crowded schools.

Other recommendations were generally accepted, like improving the ways by which principals are made aware of the significance of the information they provide to the Blue Book and promptly correcting inaccuracies uncovered when employees from the agencies review the principals’ numbers. The city has already automated the system used to determine building utilization rates to avoid mistakes caused by manual calculations, another problem the audit pointed out.