City Budget Beefs Up School Construction But Doesn’t Ease Overcrowding

By Yasmeen Khan
Originally published by WNYC on March 8, 2016

When it comes to school overcrowding, and the city’s $14.9 billion school capital plan, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

On a positive note: the city’s Department of Education added $1.4 billion to its plan, with much of these funds allocated for building new schools or additions to buildings to ease overcrowding. This is a significant amount of money, first announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in January.

The bad news? On top of the added $1.4 billion, the city would realistically need roughly $4 billion more in order to fully fund the Department of Education’s own estimated need of 83,000 seats. As it stands now, the city’s school capital plan funds about 44,000 seats — just over half the demand — through fiscal year 2019.

“We need to continue to fight to get that extra $4 billion into the plan if we’re actually going to meet the need that we currently have,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm at a hearing on the city’s school capital budget Tuesday.

The city’s estimated need of 83,000 seats — an increase of 33,000 from last June — is, in theory, good news as well. The revised estimate comes after the Department of Education changed the way it calculated space in school buildings, in order to get a better handle on school overcrowding.

For years prior, critics said the city’s accounting of school capacity grossly understated overcrowding.

The revised numbers showed that more than half of the city’s elementary and middle school buildings were overcrowded. And after these revised numbers came out, the city amended its capital plan to reflect the overcrowding.

“This is a very significant change versus prior years,” said Elizabeth Rose, deputy chancellor overseeing school facilities, who spoke at the hearing.

The school capital plan isn’t all about overcrowding, though. Here are some of the other projects funded in the plan:

  • The city is spending $670 million to create more than 7,500 new pre-k seats.
  • $450 million has been allocated to remove trailers. The city has removed 73 trailers since 2013, and has plans to remove 107 more. About 175 trailers still need a removal plan.
  • The city will replace all remaining PCB light fixtures by the end of 2016.
  • The city will spend $125 million to upgrade athletic fields.

Read more here.

Time to Support New York Students with Billions Still Owed from Campaign for Fiscal Equity

By Hon. Daniel Dromm, Chairperson, NYC Council Committee on Education

Originally published in the Gotham Gazette on January 25, 2016

Council Member Dromm (middle), the author, at the Queens Library.  Photo courtesy of the Gotham Gazette.

Council Member Dromm (middle), the author, at the Queens Library. Photo courtesy of the Gotham Gazette.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently proposed budget plan for education is a mixed bag, but represents a major shift from his attacks on public education in years past. Ultimately, however, his plan falls short by allocating less than $1 billion in new education money this year at a time when public schools are still owed more than $4.4 billion in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) funding.

The CFE was a lawsuit brought by parents against the State of New York over a decade ago. These parents charged the State with failing to provide public school students with an adequate education. In 2006, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the State in violation of a student’s constitutional right to a “sound and basic education” by underfunding schools.

Nearly ten years later students have still not received the money due to them. The State still owes New York City a staggering $2 billion, leaving our public schools woefully underfunded.

Even the $1.3 billion school aid increase provided in the 2015-16 budget was not enough to restore the massive cuts our schools suffered earlier in the decade. Public schools in immigrant and low-income communities are particularly affected, most of which are owed over 77% of outstanding CFE dollars.

Just imagine the transformative impact a $4.4 billion dollar investment in public education would have on our children’s lives. If adequately funded, schools would have the ability to hire additional teachers and school support personnel. Among other things, these sorely needed dollars would provide our students with a more robust physical education and help expand arts education in our schools. These CFE funds would bring about a dramatic reduction in class sizes in New York’s most overcrowded school districts. The possibilities are endless.

Credit where credit is due: I am excited that the Governor sees the value of the community school model and recognizes how successful community schools have been in New York City. Supporting students holistically—by offering support groups and child daycare for parents, access to physical and mental healthcare, mentors for students and other valuable services—will make them successful in many ways.
The $100 million he has allocated for community schools is welcome news, but falls short of the $500 million needed considering that these schools have grown exponentially over the past year.

I am hopeful that the Governor’s budget plan signifies a renewed interest in public education. But it’s high time he settles this ten-year-old debt. New York State must deliver the entire $4.4 billion in CFE funding it owes in order to truly do right by our children. Their futures deserve no less.

Read more here.

Overdue DOE Capital Plan To Be Released

By Samar Khurshid

Originally published by the Gotham Gazette on January 20, 2016


De Blasio at a school visit. (Photo Credit: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor’s Office)

Once Mayor Bill de Blasio unveils his preliminary budget for 2017 on Thursday, Jan. 21, the City Council will begin to hold hearings and formulate its response. In conversations with Gotham Gazette, City Council members Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, and Daniel Dromm, education committee chair, said that one of their top priorities during budget season will be addressing school overcrowding through the Department of Education’s capital spending plan.

Capital spending allows for the expansion and rehabilitation of existing schools and the building of new schools.

Each year, the DOE five-year Capital Plan is meant to be included in the mayor’s executive budget, updated in the November financial plan, and then amended through a public review process for inclusion in the next budget. This review process lends the plan transparency as the DOE and School Construction Authority consult with Community Education Councils, Community Boards, City Council borough delegations, and other elected officials. The plan is again updated and typically released in February for approval by the Panel for Education Policy. The PEP then forwards it to the Mayor and City Council.

In the last two years, the process has been significantly off schedule. Last year, the DOE Capital Plan Amendment was delayed till May 2015 to align it with the city’s 10-year capital plan. The amendment proposed a $13.5 billion five-year DOE Capital Plan for 2015-2019, up from $12 billion the previous year. As a result of the delay, there was no update in November.

The amendment will now be introduced along with the preliminary budget on Thursday, OMB spokesperson Amy Spitalnick confirmed.

“It’s disappointing that this is the second year that (the capital plan) hasn’t come out on time,” said Council Member Dromm. “I’m hoping that it will be out shortly. We need time to look at it and examine it.”

The capital plan is especially important to Dromm, Ferreras-Copeland, and others who represent districts with some of the most overcrowded schools in the city. Schools in Queens, where both Dromm and Ferreras-Copeland reside, are the most overcrowded of any borough.

“It’s overdue, it’s late,” Ferreras-Copeland said of the plan. When the Council does get it, she said she will work closely with Dromm to appeal for an additional $1 billion to address the issue of overcrowding.

The DOE capital plan estimates that adding around 38,000 seats would help alleviate the problem, but critics say that number is too low. A June 2014 report by Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller class sizes, estimated the shortage of seats at around 100,000 (Dromm believes it’s more likely between 50,000 and 75,000).

“If you look at all the development going on in the city, particularly the mayor’s plan to add 200,000 affordable housing units, then there’s a dire need for additional seats,” Dromm said. He wants most of the new money in the capital plan put towards building new schools rather than refurbishing existing ones. “We need physical seats. We need brick-and-mortar buildings to be built,” he said.

Class Size Matters’ executive director, Leonie Haimson, doubts that the update to the capital plan will be good enough, even if it is better. She called for doubling the number of seats from the last plan and investing $125 million each year from the city coffers, which would be matched by state funds. She was also critical of the DOE’s slow movement on the plan, which is now already in its second year and unapproved.

“We should have more time, not less time to analyze the plan considering the failures of the DOE in the past,” she said. “There needs to be more public process and more genuine interest on the part of the DOE to listen to people.”

Besides a greater investment in the capital plan, Class Size Matters also advocates for an independent commission to improve planning and efficiency in siting new schools.

“The mayor’s made a big push towards increasing pre-K and housing but paid very little attention to where those kids are going to go to school,” Haimson said. “I don’t think you can create good neighborhoods without schools. We’re the richest city in the richest country in the world and we have severe school overcrowding and waiting lists for kindergarten.”

Read more here.

DNAinfo: Diversity Plaza to Get More Seating and Improved Lighting

Councilman Dromm and the DOT will contribute a combined $2.5 million to improve the plaza. photo: Veronica C./Foursquare

By Katie Honan

JACKSON HEIGHTS — A local pedestrian plaza will be getting more seats, better lighting and maps — and the community will have the chance to vote on even more improvements — thanks to funding from the area’s councilman and the city.

City Councilman Daniel Dromm announced plans to allocate $500,000 from his discretionary funds to pay for improvements to Diversity Plaza, which is on 37th Road between 73rd and 74th streets in Jackson Heights.

The plaza will receive additional seating, improved lighting and community maps with directions to the plaza once it becomes permanent, he said.

“These improvements will go a long way to build out an asset that our community has come to adopt as a town square,” Dromm said.

In addition to the funds from Dromm’s office, the Department of Transportation has earmarked $2 million to make even more changes to the plaza — changes which residents will be able to discuss and vote on at a meeting later this fall.

The money could go towards things like an improved street structure and a public pay toilet, the councilman said.

“Diversity Plaza is a result of tremendous community effort, from the intensive transportation planning sessions that developed it, to the efforts of the local merchants and civic groups that are now sustaining it,” said Andy Wiley-Schwartz, an assistant commissioner at the DOT.

The street was closed and turned into a pedestrian plaza in 2011. It is currently in its temporary design phase, but the additional money will help transition it into a permanent space.


Ny1: Touring Daniel Dromm’s District

NY1 VIDEO: The Road to City Hall’s Errol Louis visited City Councilman Daniel Dromm’s 25th city council district in Queens.

The Queens Chronicle: Why the Queens Pride House lacks city funding

In a Queens Chronicle op-ed written two weeks ago, Queens Pride House Acting Board Director Pauline Park criticized the City Council’s LGBT caucus for not funding “the only LGBT community center in the borough.”

According to Park, the lack of city funding is unwarranted. With the Jackson Heights-based center receiving funding from the State Department of Health and a number of grants through the years, she expressed her confusion over why a caucus dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues will not put funds toward the Queens Pride House.

Lawmakers say there are good reasons for that.

“They have not been completely honest and because of that lack of honesty, there is a sense that not all of the members are a trustworthy group,” Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who also helped found the Queens Pride House, said. “We can’t fund everyone either. We have limited funds and we’re going to issue those funds to the groups we feel best serve the community.”

In 2010, the Queens Pride House met with LGBT caucus members Rosie Mendez (D-Manhattan), Danny Dromm, Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) and Erik Bottcher, Speaker Christine Quinn’s (D-Manhattan) liaison. According to a letter sent after the meeting by the Queens Pride House to Mendez, it was to discuss possible funding from the City Council, but it went wrong.

“Despite your best attempts to keep the meeting on track and the tone of the discussion cordial and professional, the other two Council Members turned the meeting into an adversarial encounter, demanding specific financial and programmatic information that, had they actually been interested in acquiring, they could have asked for in advance,” the letter read.

When asked about the meeting, Dromm and Van Bramer said the questions they asked were not out of the ordinary and that the Queens Pride House should have been able to answer at the time.

“Anyone who runs a program should be able to answer certain questions about their program,” Van Bramer said. “Questions like what do you do in the community and how will the funding be used are normal questions. I have never asked about a program’s finances and had the group say that it was inappropriate.”

Charles Ober, the treasurer of the Queens Pride House, said that questioning the legitimacy of the organization’s financial records is uncalled for.

“I have offered to show our books to any independent, objective person and that offer stands,” Ober said. “We abide by the highest practices in all fiscal and programmatic matters and I can prove it. I have already proved it to auditors.We gave similar information with many attached documents to the LGBT caucus in 2010 at the request of Daniel Dromm but we never received a response from him or anyone else at the caucus.”

The Queens Pride House has passed both city and state audits with few footnotes. Going through financial papers that Ober supplied, no misuse of funds was apparent.

Ober also mentioned that Dromm and the City Council had allotted money to the Bronx Community Pride Center, which closed last year after a board member was arrested for embezzlement.

According to the City Council budget, there is no evidence that Dromm funded the Bronx Community Pride House with his discretionary funds.

The budget does show the center has received funding through the Department of Youth and Community Development.

Even so, Van Bramer said there were other factors that went into their decision not to fund the Queens Pride House.

“I am proud to have funded a number of LGBT groups both through discretionary funds and caucus funds,” he said. “But with respect to Queens Pride House, I have found their approach and their application wanting. They’ve had opportunities to talk to the caucus about some of the progress they were making but it wasn’t reassuring.”

The councilman went on to say that it is important to remember that any funds the Council issues has to benefit the community in the best possible way.

“We have an obligation,” he said. “This is not our money to give away, it’s taxpayers’ money which is why we have to be exceptionally careful in allocating funds. No one is entitled to funding just because they exist.”

Kevin Wehle, a past employee with the Queens Pride House, said that lack of services is definitely an issue people in the community have had with the center.

“It’s been a rocky experience with the Queens Pride House,” he said. “They have a rocky history with many different stories and many different layers. They don’t have many services so it’s become more of a referral program. They don’t actually offer many on-site services.”

Park did say that the Queens Pride House recently received a grant to pass out condoms in the community but Wehle, who started as a volunteer and became the program assistant in 2011, recalled having difficulty finding outside groups willing to work with the center.

“When we did outreach in the community, so many people, even people in Jackson Heights, had no idea the place even existed,” he said. “Queens Pride House has a proven track record; they have a history of not working well with others. Other groups just didn’t want to work with us because they didn’t see us doing anything.”

“We offer rental space to outside groups like the LGBT AA group that meets here,” Park said. “We have a youth group and we allow anyone to use the computers we have in the lounge. There are people, many of whom are immigrants, who may not have a computer at home or aren’t out to their families yet, so they can come here to use the computers and speak with the other people hanging out in the lounge.”

According to the Queens Pride House website, programs offered include a Medicaid enrollment program, a youth group, a women’s support group and free yoga classes.

But Wehle, who was let go in May 2012, insisted “Queens Pride House has become more of a referral service than anything else. They don’t have things in-house, they’ll just tell you where you can go to get these things.”

A majority of these programs are given through other groups that meet in the headquarters, located at 76-11 37 Ave., renting the space.

“I have received a number of complaints from people and organizations regarding Queens Pride House,” Dromm said. “I find their renting process to be somewhat suspicious. I have heard that they rent the space out to a group and shortly after, they will oftentimes just throw them out.”

The LGBT caucus has been praised for being very supportive of LGBT groups. Dromm and Van Bramer have been continuous supporters of organizations such as Generation Q, an afterschool program for LGBT youth in Forest Hills.

“Much of my life has been about achieving full equality,” Van Bramer said. “I don’t think anyone would accuse me of holding an LGBT group back but at the end of the day, there will always be groups that don’t get funded, we don’t have the money to fund everyone. When we look at these groups, we have to decide which one is serving the most amount of people in the best possible way. In my experience there are other groups that are doing those things better than Queens Pride House. It is a competitive process. For anyone to say that I don’t support LGBT programs is laughable and insulting.”

Unless the LGBT caucus sees the Queens Pride House expanding its organization, they will continue to go unfunded by the City Council.

“We like to see, for example, if a group is in the news,” Dromm said. “We ask groups to show us any kind of newspapers they’ve been in. I have not seen a news story on what the Queens Pride House is doing in the community. The only time they’ve been in the news is when they’re complaining about funding.”

Over the next year or so, Queens Pride House’s exposure may change. Park mentioned a few projects in the works.

“Our biggest is the condom distribution,” she said. “We were only one of three grantees for this program and will be distributing condoms in Jackson Heights, Woodside, Elmhurst and Sunnyside.”

Park also mentioned the Queens Pride House’s new effort to inform transgendered people of their rights. Park said there is a significantly high percentage in the number of transgendered individuals being arrested by the NYPD.

“We are one of the only places to make ourselves open to the community,” Park said “Having a place where people can drop in and hang out is truly invaluable. The lack of funding really makes it a struggle but I know for certain that if the Queens Pride House ever closed, people would be devastated.”

“They have always been in financial trouble,” Wehle said. “There has never been a period when there was money; but you want funding, you have to have something. You have to show people numbers and data to get them to invest in you.”

Times Ledger: Dromm distributes $550K to nonprofits

From Times Ledger: By Rebecca Henely

City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said sanitation and ensuring the success of burgeoning immigrant populations were his priorities when he doled out the $550,000 he received in discretionary funding this year.

“I’ve made a concerted effort to make sure the way I distributed funds represents the diversity of the community I represent,” Dromm said.

The councilman’s district includes parts of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst.

Dromm’s $550,000 in discretionary funds from this year’s city budget was a significant boost from the roughly $250,000 he received last year. Dromm broke up this funding between groups serving a multitude of ethnicities, both in the neighborhood and on a statewide level.

The largest single item Dromm allocated from his own funds was $60,000 to the Doe Fund. The fund, which employs homeless and formerly incarcerated young people to clean up city streets, will be cleaning the 37th Road Plaza and surrounding areas seven days a week and other areas throughout the neighborhood five days a week, Dromm said.

“That’s a very serious commitment on my part to stressing the success of the businesses in that area,” Dromm said.

The group that received the most money, split up among multiple grants, was the Queens Community House. The organization, based in Forest Hills but with locations in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, got a collective $78,000 to fund a multitude of services from youth workshops to graffiti cleanup to housing help.

Dromm also gave Jackson Heights-based immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York $31,000 for efforts to help stop deportations of incorrectly detained immigrants and to fight homophobia and transphobia.

Another of Dromm’s major recipients was the LeFrak City Youth and Adult Activities Association, which got almost $30,000 for academic help and sports activities for young people. Dromm also gave $20,000 to the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee Inc. to fund the Queens Pride Parade in Jackson Heights, which Dromm helped start.

But Dromm also gave many smaller funds to groups that advocate for a specific minority population. He said he gave grants to groups like Asian Americans for Equality, whose closest location is in Flushing, to assist the growing Asian population in Elmhurst.

The councilman said he is also trying to identify groups that are serving the new populations in his district, like the relatively new Tibetan and Nepalese communities in Jackson Heights.

“They have the cultural competence to do the outreach,” he said of the advocacy organizations.

Dromm said he was fairly proud of the city’s budget overall this year and pointed out that it provided services to immigrants like legal help and English classes, as well as offering services that would make it easier for women to work while raising a family.

“I would call it a progressive budget,” he said.