When parents in Prospect Heights learned in August that work on a capital improvement project to reduce stormwater runoff would begin in the main schoolyard at PS9 Sarah Smith Garnet School, just weeks ahead of the scheduled start of the school year, they chalked it up to unfortunate timing.
An effort to make outdoor learning possible for the roughly 600 students whose families had chosen a mix of in-person and remote learning was just starting to take off, and the construction site would render a large chunk of the school’s outdoor space inaccessible. But at that point, the estimated completion date for the project was September 27th, so they went about their planning, expecting the work would be nothing more than a temporary inconvenience.
In early September, around the time New York City delayed the start of the school year to better prepare for safe in-person learning, the estimated completion date for the project was pushed back as well, to October 28th. Then, the last week of September, as students returned for the first time since March, when the city’s public schools shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Principal Fatimah Ali, broke the news that the Department of Education’s Division of School Facilities had placed the project on hold until further notice.
The move left a gaping hole and a mound of debris in the schoolyard, enclosed by only a chain-link fence, which some parents see as a safety risk. The decision to halt work on the project came from Mayor Bill de Blasio and was made due to funding constraints, according to various sources.
It was then that parents began to mobilize, calling local officials and launching a Change.org petition demanding that “Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza re-authorize the continuation of this construction project and see it completed in an expedited manner,” which has garnered more than 1,300 signatures and counting. Today, a few dozen parents continued these efforts with a rally in front of the school.
According to the information Principal Ali provided the parents, the project was designed to reduce the volume of stormwater runoff entering the sewers and help meet water quality goals, as mandated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. It was delayed in the spring when the schools shut down due to COVID-19 and had been delayed prior to that. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is a partner on the project.
Parent Leah Vickers said people generally took the project in stride at first, because it sounded like necessary work and would be temporary. They only became frustrated when the work stalled indefinitely.
“What’s been particularly infuriating is they started digging this hole in August,” said Vickers, who has a kindergartener at PS9 and has been spearheading the school’s outdoor learning effort. “At that point, it’s not like the city’s precarious financial situation was unknown. So if they didn’t have the money to finish the project, why build a giant hole that you can’t fill?”
The Mayor’s office and DOE have not responded to an email sent by Bklyner requesting comment or answered questions regarding the project sent by email three times this week.
Crystal Hudson, a candidate for City Council in District 35 where Prospect Heights is located, said she contacted the Mayor’s office directly after several parents reached out to her. A representative got back to her and said there was a temporary hold or pause on some of this work but that the work would be resuming within a few days.
“That’s the information I provided to the parents, that the work would be resuming. But it seems like that’s still not the case, hence the rally today,” Hudson said. Local Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo and Assemblyman Walter Mosley were present, as were Curtis Harris and P.S. 9 teacher Deirdre Levy, who are running along with Hudson to represent District 35 in the city council in the 2021 elections.
In the week or so since parents began mobilizing, they have made some progress. The fence around the site has been reinforced with durable plastic lining.
Parents who spoke to Bklyner emphasized that they realize not all schools have well-connected parents to advocate for them and the rally is not just about PS9.
Sarah Masters, who also has a kindergartener at the school, said New Yorkers know well that construction projects at schools and elsewhere can drag on for years. “Don’t just finish our project because we’re loud, finish all the projects, finish what you started,” she said.
Hudson added, “I think the school reopening has been a mess. This is just another example of how the administration has not thought through everything. If you have a project that’s going on in a space where children are supposed to be participating in outdoor learning and then you pause that project and you create these unsafe conditions, then clearly, nobody is connecting the dots.”
In addition to the safety issue, the site sits directly outside of PS9’s pre-kindergarten classrooms, which also raises concerns about dust and debris, given the need to keep windows open due to the ongoing pandemic.
“There are four-year-olds in those classrooms, and even they know, you don’t make a giant mess and not clean it up,” Vickers said.