Education Department Releases Plan to Add 20,000 New School Seats, but Where’s the Money?

Posted by Sarita Subramanian, November 22, 2010

The city’s newly released proposal to increase the plan for building, expanding, and repairing schools by $4.5 billion, or 38 percent, has received scant attention as the media has been focused on the appointment of a new Chancellor at Tweed Courthouse. The increase included in this year’s proposed amendment to the Fiscal Year 2010-2014 Five-Year Capital Plan was surprising, not so much for its identification of the need for 20,000 additional seats, but for the reliance on substantial amounts of additional funding from the city and the state with no detail on how it could be provided.

The timing of the education department’s acknowledgement of the need for more seats is also interesting, given the budget strains faced by the city and especially the state. Like the previous five-year plan (2005-2009) the current plan assumes that the costs will be funded equally by the city and state governments.

The bulk of the newly proposed spending aims to increase the school system’s capacity. Advocates have been calling for additional seats since the plan was originally adopted in June 2009, and the Department of Education has had to scramble—not always successfully—to identify classroom space to meet growing demand in a number of communities in recent years. The amendment adds $3.4 billion to the five-year plan to fund almost 20,000 additional seats, bringing the total number of new seats in the plan to about 50,000. Most of these new seats in the amendment, 18,883, would be at the elementary and middle school levels.

This emphasis reflects what the education department has described as “the start of a new growth trend” in public schools in the city. Total enrollment increased in the 2009-2010 school year after seven years of decline. School Construction Authority projections indicate that this increase is not an anomaly, but the beginning of a persistent trend, fueled by two main factors. First, enrollment in public and charter schools is increasing as enrollment in nonpublic schools is declining. Second, there is evidence that more students are remaining in the public school system for longer spans.

The amendment also proposes an increase of $1 billion in technology improvements to expand the Department of Education’s Innovation Zone program to reach a total of 200 schools. The department is also focusing on enabling on-line assessments in English and math in the 2014-2015 school year, on-line advance placement courses, and on-line credit recovery courses. All of the additional funding for technology is expected to be allocated in 2011-2013. The total for technology in the plan is $1.8 billion.

The great unknown surrounding the plans laid out in this amendment is the source of funding. The five-year plan counted on the state-funded borrowing of $1.071 billion for fiscal year 2010. Under the amendment, the state’s annual contribution would range from $1.326 billion in fiscal year 2011 to $2.135 billion in fiscal year 2014. Focusing on the November 2010 amendment alone, the increases in borrowing would require additional support from the state totaling an increase of 39 percent over the five years. The biggest year-over-year jump in state funding would occur in fiscal year 2013, when the plan anticipates a 43 percent increase. While the state’s fiscal condition three years from now remains an unknown, we do know it’s currently looking at steep budget gaps: $9 billion in the fiscal year starting April 1, 2011 and more than $17 billion in the following year, according to the latest estimates by the state’s Division of the Budget.

If the increases in state and city funding anticipated in the amendment occur as planned, the city will make progress toward alleviating current and projected school overcrowding. If the money does not materialize, families in some neighborhoods—particularly in Brooklyn and Queens, where 67 percent of the new seats are planned—will be left scrambling for scarce seats, little comforted by the knowledge that the capital plan included the best of intentions.