City of Yonkers to Press State Lawmakers To Help Fund $2-Billion School Rebuild
John Jordan | February 2016
YONKERS—After a bid to implement a Public-Private Partnership structure to help finance a nearly $2-billion capital program failed some years back, the City of Yonkers is now looking to fund the much needed improvements to its aging school system via more conventional funding methods.
The City of Yonkers and the Yonkers Public Schools announced on Feb. 1 that they would be launching a lobbying campaign in Albany this legislative session to convince state lawmakers to help finance a $2-billon school capital program. The campaign called “Rebuild Yonkers Schools” is geared at convincing New York State to finance a lion’s share of the capital improvements to the 39 existing schools in the City of Yonkers. The multi-phased plan that is slated for completed in 2029 also calls for the construction of three new schools.
The average age of Yonkers Public Schools is 75 years old with many as old as 100 years old, making them some of the oldest in New York State. The District is also one of two districts in New York with a growing enrollment of approximately 27,000 students, which is currently 4,100 seats over capacity. City officials noted that students are being taught in spaces that were never intended to serve as classrooms such as basements, libraries and auditoriums. Alternate classroom accommodations including annexes and mobile trailers also have become overcrowded.
“It has become very apparent that there is an infrastructure crisis in our schools,” said Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano. “We can no longer bandage our way out of this increasingly damaging issue facing our schools, and more importantly our students. The time has come to completely rebuild Yonkers schools and create a modern, healthy learning environment for every Yonkers student.”
Mayor Spano noted that New York State has already partnered with upstate cities to rebuild the entire school stocks in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, even as those student populations decline while Yonkers continues to grow.
The first phase will deal with the overcrowding issue at the Yonkers school system, Mayor Spano said. The initial phase calls for improvements to be made at all 39 schools and the building of three new schools (a new Gorton High School and proposed new Kindergarten through eighth grade schools on Ravine Avenue and off of Ashburton Avenue). The estimated cost for the first phase would be $500 million. Phases two through four would involve extensive renovations, and additional infrastructure improvements at every school at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion.
The first major school capital program approved by New York State was in 2000 for the $1.4-billion plan for the City of Buffalo’s school system. The City of Syracuse secured state funding for its $156-million first phase in 2006 and is now undertaking a second phase valued at $300 million, according to the Journal News. The City of Rochester has received state financing for its four-phased $1.2-billion plan for its school system. The initiative began in 2007 and is scheduled to last until 2019.
The mayor said that the city is hopeful that lawmakers will approve a plan to allow the city to issue bonds for the first phase of the project, which the city would then be reimbursed for most of the bonding.
“The taxpayers of Yonkers couldn’t even afford the first phase,” Mayor Spano said, adding that the city just wants to be able to offer students the same conditions and learning environment as neighboring school districts. “We are not asking for anything more than what they have and we are not asking for anything less. But our kids need to be able to learn in a safe and healthy environment.”
Yonkers currently receives 70% reimbursement from the state. In the legislation being drafted, Yonkers is seeking what the other big cities received in their approved and passed plans, which was 98%, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Spano. She added that the mayor realizes the reimbursement rate will be negotiated throughout the legislative process.
Superintendent of Yonkers Schools Dr. Edwin M. Quezada said, “Our schools are at or over their capacity and cannot accommodate current technology or required additional instructional space for our growing enrollment and increasing need for in-district space for Students with Disabilities and English Languages Learners. This can be remedied by Yonkers’ proposed legislation for the reconstruction of our schools. I support this legislation and will vigorously lobby for its adoption.”
“We have schools with cornerstones dating as far back as the early 1900s and even the 1800s,” said City Councilman Mike Breen, education chair for the Yonkers City Council. “It is time we take action and rebuild our schools so that we can educate our students in the environments suitable for the 21st century.”
In terms of a timeline for when work could begin, Mayor Spano cautioned that even if the State Legislature passed enabling legislation this year, funding would not be budgeted because construction work could not get started for at least a year or more. He noted that public hearings and fact finding would have to be undertaken prior to the launch of phase one of the capital improvements.
“I know it’s big, but it’s got to get done,” Mayor Spano stressed. “Because the alternative is unacceptable.” He added that while it still may take some time to secure all the necessary approvals, the process needed to get started.
The lobbying initiative has received support from a number of powerful members of the Yonkers state delegation. The plan as well as legislation are currently being drafted, Mayor Spano said.
State Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, “I am glad that Mayor Spano has started this essential conversation about reinvesting in our public school facilities. No student should be forced to attend classes in a school that is crumbling around them, and it is crucial that we invest in our school infrastructure so our children have equal opportunities to learn, grow and succeed in the new economy. I am very proud of our success last year in securing an additional $25 million to offset the Yonkers school funding crisis and I will continue fighting so all schools receive the state aid they deserve.”
State Sen. George Latimer said, “Yonkers deserves the support for needed capital in our schools that has been provided to other major cities in New York State. I support this initiative on behalf of the children of Yonkers and their parents.”
State Assemblymember Shelley Mayer added, “As a longtime champion of the Yonkers Public Schools, I look forward to working with my colleagues locally and in Albany to help repair and rebuild the schools for the children of Yonkers, as they deserve. I commend Mayor Spano for his innovative approach to finding critical funding to invest in our schools.”
A plan to secure state support and enabling state legislation to allow a Public-Private Partnership (P3) for at the time was a $1.7-billion school capital improvement program promoted by the Yonkers Public Schools and then Superintendent of Schools Bernard P. Pierorazio was killed in 2013 after a city-commissioned study chaired by former State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky found serious flaws with the P3 arrangement. Mayor Spano said that the plan was unfeasible and that in the end the city wanted to continue to own its school buildings, which would not have been the case under the P3 arrangement. Other members of the mayor’s Commission of Inquiry included: former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch and financial experts Jay Bryant and Tarrus Richardson.
The school district had been attempting to become the first school district in the United States to implement a P3 model. For the P3 initiative, which was to be fashioned as a Design, Bid, Build, Finance, and Maintain model, to have moved forward it would have required some state legislation and approval by the City of Yonkers.
Mayor Spano said the city and the school system have been working on a new funding plan since the P3 initiative was scuttled.
Photo Caption: Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano was joined by city and school district officials in announcing the “Rebuild Yonkers Schools” lobbying effort.