When City Councilmember Justin Brannan first ran in 2017 to represent District 43 (CD-43), he hoped to find a location for at least one new school for the area, particularly because it is home to one of the most overcrowded school districts in the city – School District 20.
District 20, which covers Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and a small part of Bensonhurst, overlaps with CD-43 and is short about 10,000 public school seats, according to estimates from the city’s Department of Education. Brannan has been on a mission to find as many spots for new school buildings as possible, and as of now, he’s announced one school for each year he’s been in office.
“When I ran for office,” Brannan tells Bklyner, “I didn’t want to be one of those candidates making a whole bunch of promises that I didn’t know I can actually keep or not. But one of the promises was to get at least one school sited during my first term. [Today] we’re going to announce the fourth new school siting for District 20, which I am super, super excited about.”
That new elementary school with 300 seats will be on 88th Street and 5th Avenue, right across from the Fort Hamilton Post Office in lower Bay Ridge, where there used to be a Santander Bank branch and a parking lot.
The other three schools are a new 592 seat middle school to be built at a former Nathan’s location at 650 86th Street in Dyker Heights, another 300-seat elementary school at 6740 3rd Avenue in upper Bay Ridge, and a new 600+ seat elementary school at the landmarked Angel Guardian Home.
“It’s so rare in Southwest Brooklyn,” the Councilmember says, “that we have lots of land that becomes available. So anytime I saw something become available, my first thought was to alleviate it for affordable housing. But sometimes zoning makes that complicated, so then I thought, can we put a school here? And we’ve been able to do that.”
Siting of the new schools has not been without controversy. During a Community Board 10 (CB10) meeting in early 2019 over the 592-seat middle school in Dyker Heights, tensions ran high as many parents were upset over the school’s location. One frequent complaint was over the speeding cars coming off of a ramp from the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
“There is no perfect place for anything,” Brannan explains. “No matter what you build, someone is going to have a problem with it. The answer isn’t to run and hide from people who drive like lunatics; the answer is to mitigate those concerns and make it as safe as possible for our kids. You work with the Department of Transportation to make sure there’s traffic-calming measures.”
Brannan also points out how PS 264 was once the site of a car wash, and that while there were concerns over that spot becoming a school over a decade ago, “everything worked out good.”
“You have to listen to those concerns, but you have to stay focused on the mission,” he says.
Brannan adds that in a city of 8.5 million, finding sites for new schools means dealing with the realities of an urban setting, where nearly all buildings are right on top of each other. But what that means, he says, is adjusting the surrounding streets so that having a school in a particular spot is feasible.
“You sit, and you work to make a plan,” the Councilmember says. “The DOE (Department of Education) is not going to build schools in areas they think are unsafe. But there is no unsafe place; you make it safer. You make it safer just by having the school there.”
School Construction Authority (SCA) has a lot to say about where schools can be built, or not built. One location Brannan proposed in Bensonhurst on Utrecht Avenue was declined for being too small. At the same time, there needs to be funding allocated for building new schools.
“I can’t lie; it depends on the funding,” he says. “If the School Construction Authority says the funding is there, then we’ll aggressively look for more locations. If it’s going to be a fight to secure funding for additional sites, then we won’t be as aggressive.”
The Councilmember explains that the SCA’s money to build those new D20 schools was earmarked before the COVID19 pandemic. But he admits that since three schools are about to be built in D20, there’s a chance the SCA may move on to another overcrowded district to put its funding towards new schools there instead.
Some in CD-43 claim that the reason for the overcrowded schools is because of the illegal housing conversions in the area, which was a big topic for its voters during the 2017 election. But Brannan says he does not buy that, in particular, because of his work as the Director of Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Education (DOE) between 2015-17, which took him all over the city.
“I never found that to be true,” he says. “If it is a factor, it is so minimal that it makes no difference over whether a school is overcrowded. When you actually look at the numbers and the data, it never matters enough to be an issue.”
Right now, Brannan is running for re-election as City Councilmember for CD-43. There’s a chance this city district may be re-districted based on the 2020 census, and that might mean that if re-elected, Brannan will only have a two-year second term. When asked if he hopes to find two more school sites during those two years, he laughs.
“I would love to find four more locations!” he says. “When I first took office, they [District Planning and the SCA] told us basically ‘we could use about 10,000 seats.’ So even building four schools is a drop in the bucket. But we’re still on the lookout.”
There is a challenger to the Councilmember’s run for re-election. On March 22nd, businessman Brian Fox announced he was running for Brannan’s seat on the Republican ticket. If he were to lose to Fox, what would Brannan do then about D20’s schools?
“I would just push whoever beat me to keep it up,” he says. “And to understand that building new schools and ensuring a world-class public education for our kids is paramount. It’s not a political issue; there’s not a right or wrong way to do it.”
“One of the reasons why D20 is so overcrowded is because it’s such a good school district. People move here, or they want to raise a family here because they know D20 is so solid. We got lucky with these [locations]. We found developers who have some sort of connection to the neighborhood. They’re looking to do the right thing for the community, and it’s worked out.”