BY LYNN EDMONDS
School District 26, consistently ranked as New York’s finest, has problems with overcrowded classes and limited funding for supplies, members of the presidents’ council told lawmakers at their annual legislative breakfast on March 11, even as they expressed gratitude toward all the officials for their advocacy on behalf of the schools.
Overcrowded classes are the norm in some schools in the district, which covers Bayside and Eastern Queens, Mary Vaccaro, a United Federation of Teachers union representative said, while Danielle Giunta, District 26 Superintended, added that many students were not able to attend their zoned school because of overcrowding.
Cathy Grodsky, Co-President of the Presidents’ Council, stressed the issue as well.
“Always our issue is class size, and getting those class sizes down, because when you have a group of eight years olds that have 32 kids in the class, with one teacher, that’s a lot,” she said.
Queens is no stranger to overcrowding. District 24 – which stretches from Ridgewood to Corona – and District 30, which includes Astoria and Jackson Heights, are the two most overcrowded in the city, and now District 26 is racing to the top of that list.
Vaccaro noted that classes often did go over the set limits set in their union contract – which mandates no more than 33 children per class in grades seven and eight, 32 in grades one through six, 25 in Kindergarten and 18 in Pre-kindergarten. However, she said the City Department of Education was not legally required to create a new class unless the class size either exceeded the limit by 50 percent, or exceeded the limit for three years in a row in one specific grade – and that had not happened yet.
“Our classes are large but they’re not large enough for our union to bring the city to court,” Vaccaro said.
But it might happen soon.
“The Hurricane Sandy babies are coming up within the next year,” Vaccaro said, referring to the large number of children that were conceived in 2013, following the storm.
Giunta and Grodsky stressed that the district needed another high school.
“Our high schools are busting at the seams. Kids from this district have to travel sometimes an hour and a half, two hours each way to go to high school and it’s a big problem,” Grodsky said. “We thought we were going to get [a high school] and now we’re not, so that was a big blow for a lot of people.”
The School Construction Authority scrapped plans to build a High School at the Bayside Jewish Center in November 2015 after encountering community opposition, something Giunta implied might be hurting District 26 residents.
“It’s not just we want seats, but not in my neighborhood, but we need seats for our district so that we can keep our families, keep our kids,” Giunta said.
Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside), who was in attendance at the event, addressed the “NIMBY” reference.
“It wasn’t just a few people surrounding the site that were opposed to the school. It was the greater Bayside area calling my office saying this is not the right place for a high school,” he said.
Giunta cited data that the school district would be short 4,500 elementary school seats and 4,400 high school seats by 2019, leaving zoned kids unable to attend their local school.
Some opponents of building a new high school, on the other hand, have contended these figures would be different if the Office of Enrollment gave zoned students priority and then capped enrollment sooner, citing statistics that only 60 percent of students in attendance at District 26 schools came from the district.
They were also critical of the SCA’s site selection process.
“Just to give you an example of their process, [the SCA] entered into a contract with the Jewish center, and then they said they were going to do an environmental study,” Braunstein said. “It sends a wrong impression to the community when they’ve already signed a deal to buy the building, and then they’re going to go check to see if it’s environmentally feasible.”
Nonetheless, he said, “I’m still very open to finding a site and I think everybody is.”
That didn’t completely placate Grodsky.
“We haven’t lost our turn?” she asked.
“You’d have to ask Councilman Vallone about that.” Braunstein replied.
Another issue in the school district, Grodsky said, was that Parent Teacher Associations have had to cover the cost of essential school supplies like furniture, workbooks and art materials.
Assemblyman David Weprin (D-Fresh Meadows) and Braunstein hoped to resolve this issue through additional funding. Weprin said that in their one house budget the assembly allocated an additional $2.13 billion to education, nine percent more than the figure suggested in Cuomo’s budget.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana