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City Councilmembers Say Co-location Complaints Come to Them First

Thursday, April 19, 2012 - 07:44 PM

The city's common practice of putting multiple small schools under the same roof took a beating on Thursday, as City Council members lined up to complain about the fights over shared space that have broken out in their districts.

Almost everyone had a story of a co-location gone sour. Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn threatened to sue the city's Education Department over plans to place a fifth school inside a building on Willoughby Avenue in the Clinton Hill neighborhood. "The proper term is cramming," she said. Gangs from nearby housing projects had already caused trouble in the building, she said, and another high school would add to the chaos.

Councilman Charles Barron complained that Intermediate School 211, a high performing middle school in Canarsie, Brooklyn, was not being allowed to expand into a high school. Instead, the city had given permission to Leadership Preparatory 4 Charter School, a school managed by Uncommon Schools, to open in 2013. City officials said that if they expanded the middle school, there would be over 2,000 students in the building, putting it well beyond capacity. The charter school would be a better fit, they said.

The council's hearing comes as the Panel for Educational Policy is scheduled to vote on about three dozen proposed co-locations at a meeting set for April 26.

Throughout the hearing, city officials told councilmembers that most space sharing, whether it is between charter and district schools, or one or more district schools, is amicable.

"At the conclusion of this school year, we will have proposed in the neighborhood of 100 proposals having to do with co-locations," said the deputy chancellor Marc Sternberg. "Today, we've talked about a half dozen."

In "the limited instances where there is discord," he said that "we work hard to get the adults sitting down together."

But many of the council members said they had personal experience with being dragged into fights over school space that they would rather not be involved in. When city officials propose a co-location and parents or teachers object, the local council member's office is often the first place they turn for support. Currently, 895 of the city's more than 1,700 schools share space in 328 buildings. Most of these co-locations are between district schools, but the 102 charter schools that have space in public school buildings tend to receive most of the criticism.

Councilman Steve Levin of Brooklyn said he would not describe the process as peaceful.

"I've seen people screaming at the top of their lungs at each other and grown adults behaving like children as a result of this," he said. Mr. Levin's district includes Williamsburg, where several new charter schools are scheduled to share space with existing district schools next year.

At the hearing, Mr. Levin wondered why some co-locations go unremarked upon, while others turn into public conflagrations. In Williamsburg this year, hearings over the opening of the Williamsburg Success Charter School were marked by large-scale protests, he said, while the Beginning With Children charter school's expansion garnered little attention. The Success Academy Charter Schools network, which runs a chain of schools across the city, is also opening a second school in Bedford-Stuyvesant next year, but that co-location sailed through quietly.

"Sometimes personalities of operators can get in the way," said Paymon Rouhanifard, executive director of the office of portfolio planning. "Maybe it had something to do with space. At the end of the day, we care about outcomes. All of the Success schools have received A's."

Councilwoman Gail Brewer of Manhattan said she opposed another Success Academy co-location, this one in Harlem, where the city plans to move the fifth grades of two of the network's charter schools into a pair of tandem buildings with several existing schools. The hearing over the schools' arrival was so heated that it ended with children from both the district and the charter schools crying, she said. Success Academy officials have said in the past that all of their schools share space with district schools, and in most instances, the arrangement is harmonious.

"You're making everybody furious," Ms. Brewer told city officials about the co-locations. "You're working hard at it."

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