West Side Parents Debate Elementary School Rezoning



Parents attend a meeting of District 2’s Community Education Council to comment on a wide-reaching elementary school rezoning proposal.
Photo: Emmanuel Felton.

Parents, teachers, principals, politicians and their aides filed into the bright red, rainbow-curtained P.S. 41 auditorium for a public hearing on a proposal to rezone 10 Manhattan elementary schools. If a word cloud were made of the event, the word “community” would occupy the largest space – not because it was a meeting of District 2’s Community Education Council, but because angry attendees attacked the proposal as one that would destroy their communities.

The line to speak started to form at 6 p.m., and an hour later nearly 60 people had signed up, the majority of them parents and faculty from P.S. 3 and P.S. 41, two popular Westside schools, serving South Chelsea and Greenwich Village, that are set to be rezoned. What ensued was a four-hour meeting, where parents, concerned about the security of the education plans they had set out for their children, voiced frustration with both city officials and each other.

The energized crowd clapped at every speaker’s statement, until the president of the council, Shino Tanikawa, asked them instead to use silent clapping, a jazz-hands, wriggling fingers motion, to signal support, a suggestion that was largely followed. But other than trying to quell endless applause, the council allowed the parents free rein to vent.

While the New York City Department of Education draws the school zoning lines, Community Education Councils, made up of seven district public school parents and two borough president appointees, must approve the new lines. The outsourcing of final zoning decisions to 32 such councils across the city represents one of the few city education functions not firmly in the mayor’s control.  Last year, the District 2 Community Education Council unanimously squashed two DOE proposals, one rezoning Chelsea and Greenwich Village, the other Tribeca and Lower Manhattan. Back in front of the council this year is a proposal to rezone the elementary schools serving Chelsea and Greenwich Village.

The council – as well as a lone representative from DOE, Drew Patterson, the Director of Planning for South Manhattan– presented an elementary school rezoning plan that would affect families from Canal to 72nd streets on swaths of both the west and east sides. The principal of Gramercy’s P.S. 40, Susan Felder, was there to advocate alterations to the plan,  and called its scale “unprecedented.”

The construction of two new schools to ease elementary school overcrowding, one in Chelsea and the other in Midtown East, was the catalyst for the rezoning. Initially introduced as separate plans – one rezoning Midtown East, the other Greenwich Village and South Chelsea – the merged plan allowed DOE more flexibility in creating a district for P.S. 340, slated to open in Chelsea in 2014. The school, which will inhabit part of the footprint of the former Foundling Hospital, located on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 17th Street, necessitated big changes to the zoning map of South Chelsea and the Village, argued the DOE. But for many parents, the  plan is a direct attack on the schooling plans they long ago made for their children.

To create a zone for the new Foundling school, wedges of the schools zones of popular P.S. 3, P.S. 40, and P.S. 41, which DOE says are over capacity by nine, 26 and 35 percent respectively, would be removed and welded together into a new district, to ensure that P.S. 340 does not suffer the fate of P.S. 267, a four-year-old Upper East Side school with too few students to support a full and robust curriculum.

One parent, who works as an independent college counselor, contended that the difficulties involved in navigating the city’s public schools surpassed that of the college admissions process, which is why parents like her – the mother of a six-month-old – begin planning early. This proposal, she argued, directly threatened many of these plans. A mother with two children at P.S. 41, Amy Frisch, echoed the sentiment. “This school is one the main reasons why we bought our apartment, expanded it, and invested in the community,” she said.

Currently, families who live as far north as the south side of 18th Street are zoned to P.S. 3’s and P.S. 41’s shared zone, a unique arrangement that allows families to select either school, though P.S. 41 is often oversubscribed with a waitlist that leads many students to attend P.S. 3. Under the proposed plan, that line would drop down to the south side of 14thStreet west of Greenwich Avenue, sending the families on the blocks north of there to P.S. 11, on West 21st Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, and to the south side of 12th Street east of Greenwich Avenue, sending families above that line to the new Foundling school.

The council unanimously rejected a similar plan last year, where the line east of Greenwich Avenue was set at 10th Street, citing concerns that DOE was using insufficient data to justify such a large territory being ceded to the new Foundling school. In response, the department came back with 12th Street as the boundary.

The proposal also makes significant changes to school zoning south of 12th Street by splitting up P.S. 3’s and P.S.  41’s shared zone, with the southwestern portion of the area zoned to exclusively P.S. 3. While this proposal animated many parents and school faculty, who either championed the current model of the shared zone or argued that the model pits the two schools against each other, it didn’t trigger the same level of anxiety as the proposal to rezone northern areas of the current zone to either P.S. 11, which is under-enrolled by 14 percent, or the new Foundling school.

Max Saltonstall, who has lived in the Village his whole life, except for his years at Yale University, and his wife Lynn Saltonstall have deep roots in the community, and planned to raise their children there, sending them to one of the Village’s popular public schools. With their two-year-old son Tobin and another on the way, the couple lives on West 13th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, which is currently zoned to P.S. 3 and P.S. 41. If the council approves the rezoning proposal, the family’s apartment would be zoned to the new Foundling school by the time Tobin enrolls.

Max Saltonstall, who works at Google’s Ninth Avenue campus, noted that while the new school is close to his office, he doesn’t want Tobin crossing 14th Street twice daily. He spoke about 14th Street’s often-chaotic streetscape, as did several other Village parents. “My son loves watching the buses,” he said, “but I don’t want to see him anywhere near them.”

Beyond safety concerns, Village parents expounded on the loss of a community. “[This plan] ignores the historical, cultural and geographical barrier that 14th Street represents,” said Max Saltonstall. “I do think we should fix overcrowding, but don’t ignore this historic boundary. His wife implored the council to “keep us in our community.”

Lynn Saltonstall believes that keeping the Village in one school zone is essential to its culture and its family-friendly environment. “Communities coalesce around our schools, parks, playgrounds and libraries, a whole culture forms,” she said. “Community becomes so important to you when you have a child, so even in New York, where we all like to live our singular lives, parents create these communities.”

Amy Frisch, who sits on P.S. 41’s School Leadership Team and lives on the north side of 12th Street, also feels she is being robbed of her community. “I’m a senior executive but I have spent countless hours building this school’s community,” said Frisch. “We are being punished by the new Rudin development. We are road kill, a casualty of this experience.”

Frisch is referring to a luxury development planned by Rudin Management for the site of the former St. Vincent’s hospital on West 11th Street, which some parents see as the driving force behind the shrinking zones for P.S. 3 and P.S. 41 — taking some current families out to make room for new families who will move into this development in the prized zone. The city, however, contends that the principle reason for the 12th Street line is to ensure that the Foundling school in Chelsea has an adequate student population.

One Chelsea dad, who has two children at P.S. 41, poked fun at Village parents, calling himself “one of the daredevils who cross 14th [Street].” He argued that the Village parents were not concerned about safety issues, but were instead worried about sending their children to an “unestablished” school. Referring to Foundling, he said “This [new school] is a big unknown for all of us,” and implied that getting a child into the esteemed P.S. 3 or P.S. 41, not maintaining a sense of community, was parent’s primary concern.While his two children currently at P.S. 41 would retain their places, he seemed resigned to the fact that his third child will have to attend Foundling, and was at the meeting that night to argue for a big enough zone to ensure that the school would not suffer from having too few students.

Village parents were not the only ones skeptical about the proposal. Simon Miller, vice president of the council, had an issue with how the DOE estimates attendance data. “They use data based on the previous year,” he said. “That is the exact wrong statistic to use because unless the parents have children one year apart these are the exact areas where we know the children will not be coming from.”

The co-chair of the council’s zoning committee, Eric Goldberg, seemed eager to address the overcrowding issue this year, “We all know that we have some issues with overcrowding in Greenwich Village and Midtown East,” he said. “We are trying to create new school communities to address these issues.”

The meeting ended soon after the list of speakers was exhausted. No date was announced for a council vote on the proposal, but Goldberg told the audience that the council would post this information on its Facebook page when it becomes available.