When Yonkers students say goodbye for summer on June 24, they deserve to go their separate ways with the knowledge that their cracking, leaking, steaming — and potentially dangerous — school buildings will finally be rebuilt.
This will only be the case if the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo approve a long-delayed plan to renovate and rebuild the Yonkers schools before the current legislative session is scheduled to end on June 18. The city’s state delegation has submitted ambitious but reasonable legislation that would set in motion the first phase of a project that cannot be avoided much longer.
If Cuomo and legislative leaders want to revise the bill, let’s hear it. If they have a better plan, bring it. But don’t let another school year begin without committing to do what must be done: overhauling a decrepit, overcrowded fleet of 39 buildings that, at an average age of 75, are an embarrassment to everyone in Albany who has a hand in the running of our public schools.
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The situation in Yonkers has been common knowledge for years. Every state official who visits the Yonkers schools — featuring water-damaged ceilings, sealed and clouded-over windows, uncontrollable temperatures and dank basement classrooms — agrees that they are unhealthy and present a lousy environment for learning. No one in their right mind would advocate letting them be.
The only question is when Albany will step up. Now, when the state’s books are balanced and its finances have been fattened with billions from settlements? Or after a ceiling or brick wall comes down?
It’s Yonkers’ turn
Yonkers and the other “Big 4” city school systems — Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse — depend to a large degree on state financing and none could take on a major capital project by themselves. Fortunately, since 2000, the state has approved and paid for desperately needed school renovation projects in the other three cities.
Now Yonkers is at bat. In February, Mayor Mike Spano introduced a $2 billion, multi-phase proposal and headed to Albany to begin selling his plan, #RebuildYonkersSchools. Then the city’s legislative delegation — Sens. Andrea Stewart-Cousins and George Latimer and Assembly members Shelley Mayer and Gary Pretlow — began crafting a smart bill that could give the plan life.
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Their bill focuses only on a first, $523 million phase, which would include the building of a new Gorton High School and two other new schools. Unlike the Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse school systems, Yonkers continues to see its enrollment climb. With almost 27,000 students, the Yonkers schools are more than 4,000 students over capacity and are adding hundreds each year.
Still, the new bill calls on Albany to cover 98 percent of the project’s costs. Doing so would mean disregarding the standard formula, a potentially precedent-setting move that no one expects the Division of Budget to happily endorse. This is a steep political challenge. But the DOB, Cuomo’s staff, legislators and Spano’s office have to figure out a realistic financing scheme.
The alternative, to let the Yonkers school continue to rot, is unacceptable.
We’ve heard the concerns of those who question whether hundreds of millions would be spent as intended, given that it’s Yonkers. So give the city’s legislators credit for writing a bill (A.9932/S.7459) that emphasizes accountability. The legislation would set up a nine-member Yonkers Joint Schools Construction Board to oversee the project, including the mayor, school board president and schools superintendent; it includes a conflict-of-interest policy and “anti-nepotism clause” that would guide the appointing of other members.
Plans would start with the superintendent and school board, but the state comptroller would have to approve the finances. There would also have to be at least one public hearing on each school project.
Again, if state leaders want to tighten requirements or revise the financing, start talking with Stewart-Cousins, Latimer, Mayer and Pretlow. But don’t push Yonkers off. What if the economy tanks a few years from now and the schools haven’t been rebuilt? Home-schooling for all?
The schools will only get older. The work must be done. Set it up, governor.