Here's a Riddle: How Many Students Can Fit into a NYC School Building?

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An obscure technical report issued every year by the Department of Education has long aggravated those concerned with overcrowding in New York City public schools. It is this report, and its underlying formula, that are now under review by a panel appointed by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña largely because of critics' concerns that the formula is both deeply flawed and has been misused to handle an overcrowding crisis in the schools.

At issue is how much actually will change because of the task force, comprised of parent leaders, community activists and about a dozen staff members from the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority. Fariña said there may not be fundamental reforms to the Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report, known as the blue book, but she hoped there would be better understanding of the process.

"There’s always room for improvement and having been a principal I know when people walk the building there’s all kinds of ways of looking at space," Fariña said in a recent interview. "Listening to everybody is our first goal and the second goal is to come up with common vocabulary that when we actually walk into schools, when we say this space is designated for X, that everybody understands that it would be the same no matter school you go into."

Part of the listening campaign will mean getting an earful from critics, including Sarah Morgridge, a member of the task force and previously a staff member working on school capacity issues for former City Council member Robert Jackson.

"The formula has absolutely nothing to do with the way the building was designed," said Morgridge.

She questioned how certain schools in District 6, where she raised her own children, were designed with the same floor plans but ended up with wildly different school capacity numbers. And she contended that the department converted specialty rooms — those used for art, music, special education services and counseling — to classrooms in many buildings in order to address enrollment needs, artificially inflating a school building's capacity on paper.

Trailers, meant to be temporary spaces, also were added to school's capacity in the blue book, said Morgridge.

"The capacity numbers have always been manipulated in order to control the utilization numbers," she said.

Morgridge's point has been made before. As far back as 2001, a state Supreme Court judge outlined the same issue of inflated capacity in the ruling of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity versus The State of New York.

Other task force members said they would like to see the entire philosophy of evaluating school capacity shift, from one that maximizes efficiency in a school building to one that focuses on the best way to meet students' educational needs.   

Eric Greenleaf, a task force member and a parent in Manhattan's District 2, said that he would like to see the group identify concrete areas in which the blue book needs reform.

"I think the place to start is to say 'here are 10 things that are going on in the blue book that shouldn’t be going on,'" he said, "and these can be changed immediately."

Fariña warned that changes to the blue book would not come overnight. Except two: the department would reformat the lengthy, technical document  to make it easier to read and it would release the next blue book, covering school capacity in the 2013-2014 school year, earlier, possibly before September.