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School Building: Part 2

by Gail Robinson, May 06, 2002
 

SELF INFLICTED WOUNDS

The State Legislature created the School Construction Authority in 1988 to design and build schools. The Board of EducationĂŞs Division of School Facilities had had this responsibility and, according to many accounts, botched it. "The board needed 8 to 10 years to build a school, and organized crime dominated its construction projects," E.V. Kontorovich wrote in "City Journal." The board still has the job of planning schools.

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Now, some say, the solution has become the problem. "The most consistent and effective arguments made against increased funding for school facilities are concern with poor management overall and a lack of accountability at the School Construction Authority," the New York City Partnership concluded in 1999. "There are strong reservations to providing more dollars to an entity that, in the perspective of many, has done an inadequate job with its existing funds."

And this was before the news of the multibillion cost overruns broke last year. "Costs of school construction exceed those for luxury buildings in mid-Manhattan," Mayor Bloomberg told a City Council committee. It costs almost $79,000 to create space for one student in a New York City public school, the New York Post reported, three times what it costs in New Jersey. Looking at it another way, a new school in New York costs about $425 to $450 a square foot, compared to between $180 and $210 in Chicago.

As expensive as it is, the construction and repair of schools are often done badly. A Brooklyn teenager died in 1998 when she was struck by a brick that fell from the roof of Brooklyn's PS 131. At new PS 24 in Sunset Park tiles seemed about to fall from the school's facade almost as soon as it was completed; construction crews rushed in to ring the school with scaffolding. Now, the facade is intact and the school scaffolding-free, but the problems boosted construction costs $12 million over budget.

Committees and experts have scrambled to find the reason for the high costs and bad work. The price of land in the city is partly to blame. By stressing that the city needed schools -- and needed them fast -- officials may have inadvertently sent a message to contractors that speed, not keeping costs down, was key. The construction boom since 1999 created a shortage of contractors and workers, pushing costs upward. Community opposition to a school in its midst can create delays and force the city to alter a schoolĂŞs design or location, further raising costs.

CHANGING THE SYSTEM

Last December, Chancellor Levy appointed a commission, headed by developer Peter M. Lehrer, to investigate the reasons for the high costs and recommend changes. In its findings released May 2, the commission, like many other critics, targeted the School Construction Authority, noting that the establishment of the authority created "a system with too little accountability and which has proved itself incapable of controlling the forever-escalating school construction costs." With two agencies involved in construction, the commission said, it is often difficult if not impossible to determine who is responsible for what.

Those comments echo statements previously made by Mayor Bloomberg who has said, "There is no accountability in the way schools are constructed or maintained." He has called for creating "clear lines of management" to handle school construction.

The Lehrer Commission would put control in the hands of the mayor, giving him the authority to appoint all three trustees of the School Construction Authority (the mayor now only appoints one).

The commission noted that the Board of Education has literally thousands of pages of design standards and rules that architects and contractors must comply with. At least some of these standards are intended to make schools last for generations, but the Lehrer Commission wondered whether spending more on construction now to avoid maintainance later is "always the wise choice."

In its report, the commission called for an array of measures that would streamline school construction rules, and thereby attract more contractors to bid on school projects, further lowering costs. The commission urged the city to build simpler schools with more standardized parts, such as doorknobs and clocks, and pointed to Chicago, which uses a small number of prototype designs for new schools. Overall, its recommendations, the report said, could lower costs for new schools to about $300 a square foot.

While the commission thought its design recommendation could create attractive schools serving children's need, education historian Diane Ravitch expressed doubts. "Standardization could mean those horrible boxes we got in the 1950s and 1960s," she told the New York Times.

Chancellor Levy, though, said he would throw the book of construction rules in the trash and replace them with updated standards.

Some earlier critics suggested the city government should not be in the construction business. The Manhattan Institute sees many problems at the School Construction Authority as endemic to bureaucracies: lack of accountability, apathetic workers, little incentive to excel. So, it calls for the Board of Education to adopt a "turnkey" model of public contracting. "In a turnkey system," explains Christopher Atamian, "the board hires a private-sector developer to build a school, with all the efficiencies private developers enjoy. When the job is done, the developer hands over the front door key to the Board of Ed. If the board likes what it sees, it can reward the developer with new contracts -1?2 a healthy incentive to work efficiently and for a fair price."

The Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation in Brooklyn has gotten money from private groups to begin to create a 400 seat school for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. The group, the first local development corporation to take on such a project, wants to buy an industrial building and refurbish it for the Cypress Hills Community School.

Others think the board should lease space, as opposed to building new schools, in order to bring new classrooms into the system quickly.

Meanwhile, despite the tight budget, the mayor has said he would like to put a school in the Tweed Courthouse, although some wonder whether a lavishly restored 19th century building next to City Hall is really the best place for dozens of raucous youngsters.

Bloomberg also sees his plans for Governors Island, which include building a flagship campus for the City University on the site of the former Coast Guard station, as having the potential to ease the school crowding crisis at lower grades. The space that will be freed, he has said, would be the equivalent of at least a dozen high schools.

INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS SHORT OF BUILDING

Aside from building, the other way to ease overcrowding is to make better use of what already exists. Schools could be occupied 12 months a year. Under such a plan, students would attend schools about 180 days a year as they do now but would have vacations at different times. So in one school, students could be divided into four groups with each attending schools for 45 days and then having 15 days off. This, one study estimates, would allow a building built for 750 students to serve 1,000. And, some say, it would also produce educational benefits since students would not forget as much over several shorter vacations as they now do over the long summer break. Parents and teachers, however, have resisted the idea.

The Educational Priorities Panel urges that some fifth grades be shifted from elementary schools to middle schools, since many middle schools tend to be less crowded. And the Lehrer Commission thinks too much space in new schools goes for kitchens, boilers, basements and so on. In response Levy said he would require that at least 60 percent of all space in new schools go for education purposes.

Few of these solutions will have produced much classroom space by next September or probably even the next. And so, when schools open in September, some Midwood students will still be setting their alarms for 5:30 a.m. and some students at PS 11 will learn reading, writing and arithmetic in a place originally intended for washing.

School Building Part 1




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