Access Granted

Carranza unveils capital plan with $750 million in fixes for disability access

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza visits an art class at P.S. 11's new school building in Queens.

Heeding calls from advocates, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza proposed Thursday a $750 million plan to improve accessibility for students with disabilities at a third of the schools in every district. 

The announcement comes after months of urging from advocates over the lack of access for students with disabilities in a majority of school buildings.

About 80 percent of New York City’s public schools are not completely accessible. Last budget cycle, the city committed $150 million to improve access over the next three years. But in order to make just a third of school buildings accessible, advocates estimated a cost of another $750 million.

Officials said that, under the new plan, they expect half of elementary school buildings will be partially or fully accessible.

Advocates for children with disabilities applauded the news. The plan will “literally open the doors to inclusion,” said Kim Sweet, executive director for Advocates of Children New York, in a statement.

“We have been pushing for improved accessibility since we did the math a few years ago and in speaking to families,” said Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, at the news conference. “And it’s become clearer and clearer that we needed more accessible options at every school level.”

Accessibility projects will range from “really easy fixes,” such as adding ramps for wheelchairs, to “very big overhaul projects,” such as building access to a second-floor gym, said Karin Goldmark, deputy chancellor for school planning and development.

But the city won’t focus right now on buildings that have zero access, Goldmark said, who noted that many of them are a century old and have certain structural challenges that would require complete demolition.

“You would have to tear down and start over in order for it to be a project that’s really meaningful, and that’s not contemplated in this $750 million,” Goldmark said. “What we’re looking at it is all of the schools that we can really move along, continue accessibility so that we can get schools that are partially accessible to fully accessible, we can get some schools that have some potential to (become) partially accessible in a meaningful way.”

Carranza’s announcement — which came during a visit to P.S. 11’s new school building in Queens — is part of a proposed $17 billion five-year capital plan, which he said was the largest proposal of its kind in the school system’s history.

“You see, ladies and gentleman, when I first came to New York City a little over six months ago and I engaged in my tour to listen to communities across all five boroughs, and to listen to parents and community members and staff members and students, the three things they said to me that were loud and clear were, no. 1, we want more technology —it’s in this plan,” Carranza said. “The next thing they said to me was, ‘We want permanent classroom facilities’ — it’s in this plan. And the other thing they said to me was, ‘We want to have air conditioning in our schools’ — it’s in this plan.”

Carranza toured what he called a “state-of-the-art” building. He visited art and English classes, where children described their projects to him. He credited the new building with engaging the students.

“The facility (at P.S. 11) not only enables but allows students to unleash their creativity,” Carranza said. “What is so clear here today is that when we give students these kind of state-of-the art — and I’m going to underline ‘permanent’ — facilities and resources, we’re helping them to achieve.” 

The plan also includes new funding for 57,000 student seats to fulfill a commitment to reduce overcrowding that officials made about two and a half years ago by building a total 83,000.

These seats won’t necessarily be ready to go in the next five years, officials said. Rather, they will all be “sited” — in some design or planning phase.

Those 57,000 seats include 14,000 that were rolled over from the current capital plan, said Lorraine Grillo, president and CEO of the school construction authority.

Those seats will be added into new buildings or will be additions to existing schools, Carranza said.

The plan also calls for air conditioning for all classrooms by 2021 — a year earlier than previously planned.

About $750 million of the capital plan will go toward increased internet bandwidth and cybersecurity upgrades in schools. A “vast majority” of this funding will go toward upgrading the networking equipment in schools so they can access increased bandwidth, Goldmark said.

Another $550 million will create new pre-K and 3-K seats.

A report from a City Council working group in May found that 54 percent of elementary and middle schools and 47 percent of high schools are “over-capacity.” And 80,000 more students are expected in the city by 2040.

The capital plan will be sent to the Panel for Educational Policy following a public comment period in March and requires final approval from the mayor and city council.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

About 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that as of midday Tuesday, it wasn’t clear how long the repairs would take and whether or not school would be back in session tomorrow.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the broiler repairs on their own.

“We are not working with SCS because they don’t handle HVAC issues that are less than $25,000” maintenance director, Erica Williams told Chalkbeat in an email.

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.

Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.