Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rethinking P.S. 36

Columbia Spectator
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Rethinking P.S. 36
By Andrew Lyubarsky
Issue date: 11/28/06 Section: Opinion

The opening line of the "Neighbors" section of our university website proudly declares that "we at Columbia University take pride in our community and embrace opportunities to give back to the neighborhood we call home." Delving deeper into the website, we find a statement from President Bollinger on the Manhattanville expansion that states that "we have sought to work with our neighbors and community leaders to build a broad consensus on a shared future that will guide us in the decades ahead." Our administration says that it is proud of what it has done for the West Harlem community and argues that the University is a positive presence in the neighborhood.

Their sunny rhetoric is hard to reconcile with the images we saw recently on the cover of the Spectator of dozens of elementary schoolchildren protesting Columbia's decision to build a magnet school in league with the Department of Education on top of PS 36 on Morningside Drive. The decision would, at least temporarily, blend junior high school students with pre-K to 2nd grade kids, creating a potentially volatile safety situation and possibly leading to overcrowding. Understandably, this greatly concerns parents who are irate at having this decision imposed on a community institution they have come to respect.

The problem here is certainly not that Columbia's decision to build a school is inherently negative. The idea for the magnet school, which would specialize in math and science, was announced by President Bollinger to the University community last October. At that time, it met with at least tepid community support, although some concerns were raised as to whether it would genuinely serve the residents of Harlem or benefit more privileged constituencies. Community Board 9 Chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc was quoted as being "very happy" about the school, and it was touted by the administration as another positive institution it would set up in Harlem.

Now, Reyes-Montblanc is saying that he is ready to "blast everybody from the chancellor of DOE to the trustees of Columbia" to save PS 36. What could cause such a dramatic change of heart? The fact of the matter is, in direct contradiction to its stated position, Columbia went about the changes without consulting community members that would be affected by the changes or, apparently, the leadership apparatus at Community Board 9. I do not pretend to have the expertise to determine whether or not the new school will actually benefit the community-it may well have positive effects. I do see, however, that Columbia has acted in blatant violation of the principle of transparency. Columbia has told the community what it needs without giving them any agency or even bothering to listen to their objections. There is a word for launching ambitious projects to "aid" the less fortunate without allowing them any participation or input in the process-paternalism.

Unfortunately, this tends to be the rule rather than the exception in regards to our relations with Harlem. The Spectator famously uncovered that Columbia sent a payment of $300,000 to the Empire State Development Corporation to investigate whether or not the use of eminent domain to expel recalcitrant tenants would be possible in the Manhattanville expansion zone.

Columbia has refused to dialogue with the community's 197-A plan, a plan that took a decade to develop, for the development in the area. Instead, the University has propounded a plan that directly contradicts it, one that the community played absolutely no part in concocting. The University and the institutions that it is working with have also been notoriously unresponsive to demands to hold public proceedings and turn over documents to lawyers representing clients in the area. In this light, the administration's claims of inclusiveness are nothing less than rank hypocrisy.

Regardless of what one thinks of the merits of Columbia's expansion proposal, students should agree that the community whose lives will be profoundly affected by the changes have a right to know what Columbia is planning and to have a role in shaping the plan. We should let the administration know, in the strongest terms possible, that we hold them to a high standard and that we expect the community to have a voice in its own formation. This is a rallying cry that all of us can get behind.

NB- Point of clarification: Columbia University never consulted CB9M or the Chairman about opening a new Math & Science High School and we did not know about such plans until the announcement that CU intended to create such High School in the West Manhattanville expansion area, were made with Mayor Bloomberg and Congressman Rangel several months ago. When asked by the Spectator, the Chairman indicated his concerns that the school would not be intended for CB9M children although he was happy that a new school would open in the District.

There is none of the contradiction indicated by the article above regarding the current situation involving PS 36.

In regards to the temporary opening of that school within PS 36 again neither CB9M nor the Chairman nor the parents or staff of PS 36 were consulted. That CU would not consult CB9M is bad enough but when the Dept of Education fails to make such City Charter mandated consultations with CB9M, this failure by DOE is totally unacceptable and intolarable and the Chairman and CB9M will support the parents in their opposition.

Additionally CB9M's Youth, Education & Libraries Committee will be conducting a Public Hearing on December 6, 2006 at 6:30pm at the CB9M offices, to determine exactly what has happened and why if there were 350 vacan seats available at PS 36 why why there are not more children from our District being recruited to fill those seats as there is a great need for school space for children in the age bracket served by PS 36 and other concerns that the parents and community will express during the hearing. - JRM

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