Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Testimony of Leonie Haimson before the NYC Council Education Committee On school overcrowding and the deficiencies of the capital plan

Testimony of Leonie Haimson before the NYC Council Education Committee
On school overcrowding and the deficiencies of the capital plan

March 3, 2015

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  My name is Leonie Haimson; I head Class Size Matters a citywide advocacy group devoted to providing information on the benefits of smaller classes to parents and others nationwide.

Last June, Class Size Matters released a report, Space Crunch, which analyzed the school overcrowding crisis in New York City, and pointed out the need to improve the City's proposed five year capital plan for school construction.[1] We found that given enrollment projections and existing overcrowding, it is likely that the real need in our schools is likely over 100,000 new seats, though the current capital plan would create less than half that number.

By averaging the enrollment projections of the two DOE consultants, Statistical Forecasting and Grier Partnership, and then adding the additional growth from housing starts, as DOE does, one can estimate that  is that there will be approximately 84,000 additional students in grades K-8 by 2021; and an additional 32,000 high school students.[2]

There are only 38,654 seats in the proposed five year capital plan – with 4,000 of those seats still unsited as to district and with undetermined grade levels. Unless the plan is significantly expanded, our students are likely to be sitting in even more overcrowded schools in the years to come.

School overcrowding has significantly worsened in the last six years, especially at the elementary grade level. Last year, elementary school buildings had an average 97.5 percent utilization rate, according to the DOE's figures in the Blue Book, with the median rate at a shocking 102 percent. High schools were not far behind at an average of 95.2 percent.  About half of all students were enrolled in overcrowded schools last year, according to DOE’s figures, with 60% of elementary school students, totaling more than 490,000 students in all.

At the same time, most experts believe that the official utilization figures reported by the DOE are faulty and actually underestimate the actual level of overcrowding in our schools, The Chancellor has appointed a task force to improve the formula, which will hopefully take account of the real needs of children for smaller classes, and a well-rounded education, with dedicated rooms for art, music and science, as well as mandated services.

The result of all this overcrowding is that class sizes are pushed above reasonable levels, students have lost their cluster rooms, are assigned to lunch as early as 10 a.m., and/or have no access to the gym. Many special needs students are forced to receive their services in hallways or closets rather than in dedicated spaces.
In eleven NYC school districts, elementary schools average above 100 percent capacity; in 20 out of the 32 districts, above 90 percent. In addition, high schools in Queens and Staten Island average above 100 percent. More than 30,000 additional seats are needed in just these districts to bring schools down to 100 percent.
Even more seats are needed if overcrowding is to be eliminated at the neighborhood level, as evidenced by thousands of students sitting in trailers, and thousands prospective kindergarteners on wait lists for their zoned schools.

Recent and past policies have worsened overcrowding.  During the Bloomberg administration, fewer schools built than in earlier administrations, as shown in our Space Crunch report. In addition, the DOE insisted on inserting hundreds of small schools and charters into buildings that already housed existing schools, eating up classrooms by replicating administrative and specialty rooms – a very inefficient use of space when the infrastructure is already inadequate to meet most students’ needs. In the effort to squeeze in more schools, DOE also redefined the size of a full size classroom down to only 500 square feet in their Instructional footprint, at the same times as increasing class size.  As more and more children were pushed into smaller and smaller rooms, the result has been a violation of the building code in many cases, which requires 20 square feet per student.

This administration has also undertaken policies that have worsened overcrowding.  This year, in the push to expand pre-Kindergarten, at least 11,800 preK seats were added in 254 schools that were already overcrowded, according to DOE figures. [3]  The DOE’s plan to create community schools with wrap-around services also requires space, for offices and other programmatic needs. And none of this takes into account the need to reduce class size, which remains at a 15 year high in the early grades.  

In addition, the Mayor’s new ambitious plan to build an additional 160,000 additional market-rate units, on top of the 200,000 affordable units over the next ten years will create the need for even more school seats.[4]

Just as this capital plan is totally inadequate to relieve overcrowding, it is also unlikely to achieve the DOE's widely-publicized promise to eliminate trailers or temporary classroom units (TCUs). While the NY Times has reported that 7,158 students are enrolled in classes in these trailers, [5]  the actual number is likely 50 percent higher – as the DOE has omitted from its count thousands of high school, middle school and elementary school students, as well as severely disabled students, who attend classes in these substandard structures.

Moreover, although DOE officials have promised that the capital plan will accomplish the goal of eliminating trailers, many of which are in disrepair and long past their expected lifetime, and have allocated nearly $500 million to remove them and recondition the school yards on which they sit, there is not a single dollar in the capital plan dedicated specifically to replacing their seats. In the November capital plan, 81 TCUs are identified for removal with a minimum enrollment of 1126 students; but 236 TCU’s will remain with at least 6,265 students. The actual enrollment figure in the TCUs remaining is probably much higher, as 32 of these TCUs are at high schools and the DOE does not report how many students use these trailers.[6]

Our report concluded with a number of policy recommendations, suggesting how the DOE can improve the school utilization formula, enhance the planning process, and institute a more aggressive capital plan, using eminent domain and funded in part by "impact fees”.

Just recently the DOE signed a five year contract with an IT vendor, Computer Consultant Specialists, to wire NYC schools at a cost of $127 million a year, and renewable for four more, potentially at a cost of more than $1 billion. Originally the cost of this contract was nearly twice that high, at $225 million per year, for up to nine years, at a potential cost of $2 billion.  After I blogged about this questionable contract, and reporters started asking questions about it, the DOE managed to cut about $100 million out of the annual amount.  [7]

There has been considerable controversy over this contract, especially as the company was implicated in a kickback scheme that robbed DOE of millions of dollars only a few years ago.  But I wanted to make a separate point: for only $125 million in city funds per year, according to the Independent Budget Office, just a bit more than the DOE cut out of this contract, the number of seats in the capital plan could be doubled and we could eliminate school overcrowding and begin to meet the real needs of our students.  I strongly urge the Council to do so.

I also strongly support the resolution against raising the charter cap.  If the Governor’s proposal was adopted, with the cap raised to 100 and all geographical limits eliminated, NYC could be subjected to 250 new charters, all obligated to receive space at the city’s expense.  I hope the DOE or some other body gave you a cost estimate of how much the new charter amendments are projected to cost the city.  I assume that they will surpass $40 million per year very quickly, with the state obligated to reimburse 60% of the cost thereafter. 

But if 250 charters were imposed on the city, the cost to providing them with space could be immense.  Our rough estimate is that this could cost an additional $833 million per year.  Of that amount, the cost to the city would be roughly $357 million per year, with the state covering the remaining portion at $476 million per year.[8]  The annual city payments for charter rent alone could nearly triple the number of seats in the capital plan if used to build new schools.

If the cap is lifted, and 250 more charters were targeted to NYC, the likely outcome would be that the only schools to be leased or built in the future would be charter schools, and as our public schools became increasingly overcrowded, parents would be forced to send their children to these schools whether they wanted to or not.

Conclusion: None of the goals of parents, advocates or the de Blasio administration can be achieved without a better and more ambitious capital plan – so that our public schools have the space for prekindergarten, smaller classes, a well-rounded education, and wrap-around services.   Only with significantly improved planning, policies, and funding can our public school students be provided with the learning opportunities they deserve.  And all this would be nearly impossible to achieve if the state lifts the cap on charter schools.

[1] http://www.classsizematters.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/SPACE-CRUNCH-Report-Final-OL.pdf

[2] This is because the consultants do not take into account building starts, so the DOE says they “overlay” the estimates from residential development using the City planning formula, above the estimates of the consultants.

[3] Pre-Kindergarten data from DOE Directory for the 2014-2014 Admissions (September 2014)
http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/AAEE65E0-8326-4E33-BACA-A462A2ECC65E/0/201415PreKDirectoryUPDATED09032014.pdf; Utilization Data from Blue Book report, 2013-2014,  http://www.nycsca.org/Community/CapitalPlanManagementReportsData/Pages/EnrollmentCapacityUtilization.aspx

[4] Michael M. Grynbaum, “In 2nd Year, Mayor de Blasio Will Focus on Making Housing Denser and More Affordable, NY Times, Feb. 2, 2015.

[5] Al Baker, “Push to Rid City of Classrooms That Are Anything but Temporary,” NY Times, March 31, 201.4

[6] http://www.nycsca.org/Community/CapitalPlanManagementReportsData/CapPlan/11052014_15_19_CapitalPlan.pdf

[7] See http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2015/02/news-update-on-immense-doe-contract.html; also Yoav Gonen, “DOE hiring tech firm linked to kickback scheme,” NY Post, Feb. 24, 2015 and Juan Gonzalez, “New contract from city's Department of Education to questionable technology firm does not compute,” NY Daily News, Feb. 24, 2015.

[8] This was based on the following estimated figures: 250 new schools with up to 1200 students each (400 students at each level: elementary, middle and high school) to be paid a minimum of $2,775.40 per student for rental costs, which is the amount required for next year, though the per student amount likely to rise in the future. This equals $832.6 million – with the city covering the first $40 million and then 40% of the total cost thereafter, as specified in the new state law. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Last night's approval of the huge Computer Consultant Services contract -- what de Blasio said that day in Albany, and the failure of mayoral control

See also the video below of last night's discussion of the Panel for Educational Policy and vote on the contract.

Last night, the PEP voted 10-1 to approve a contract of up to $1 billion to a company called Computer Consultant Services that had been involved in the huge Ross Lanham kickback scheme just a few years ago- with only Robert Powell, Bronx appointee and contract committee chair voting against it.  

Panel members were apparently persuaded that it was worth the risk to rush to grant at least $650 million over five years, and perhaps more to this company that had bilked them of millions of dollars just a few years ago, in the hope of getting the Comptroller to approve it by the end of March before the federal deadline for $20 or $25 million in E-rate funds runs out.

Chancellor Farina was obdurate that the contract was fine, they had done their “due diligence”, and that no company is going to be "100% foolproof."  She said they needed the internet wiring in order to get the hardware promised by unnamed "funders" and "certain companies...to put our kids in the future, while now they're struggling in the past."  This didn't prevent several members from venting criticism.   

Powell repeatedly tried to dig out how the price for the five year contract could have dropped from $1.1 billion to $650 million apparently overnight,  which the DOE officials never managed to adequately explain, especially if the CCS  initial bid was really the “first best bid,” as David Ross  insisted.  Ross has been head of DOE contracts for more than a decade and has overseen many huge scandals, including the Lanham fiasco and this even more corrupt IT contract, of Future Technology Associates, whose report by the Special Investigator revealed "shocking incompetence, lack of oversight or outright collusion by top school officials who were supposed to protect taxpayers," according to Juan Gonzalez.  Yet Ross actually boasted that now, DOE has employees who are contract officers and managers who have taken a “full day” curriculum about their responsibilities. 

Norm Fruchter said he would have to make several different “leaps of faith” in voting for the contract, including that the “CCS that actually colluded with Lanham is not the CCS that’s not now making the bid” (though the same CEO of CCS is still in charge, Gregory Galdi,  who bilked DOE before, and who according to the Investigator's report set up a real estate company called " G and R Scuttlehole LLC with Lanham at the same address, shortly before Lanham was arrested.)   Fruchter said he was prepared to make the leap and approve the contract, but said he resented that he had been put in this position.  Ross responded this way:

 “On a very important level, I agree with you …I don’t like the way this unraveled, it’s an odd confluence of circumstances that got us here….  The Department has done a poor job leveraging E Rate dollars historically, and we engaged in a great deal of effort assisted by Ernst and Young [!] to make sure that we built new contracting procedures that would assure we could leverage E-rate dollars correctly…We were late when we started this, we could have thrown up the white flag and given up on 2015 and done a pristine procurement that would have looked great in July but I didn’t want to blow it…the ability to get federal reimbursement of $25 million for work that could be done in 2015-2016 school year..  I’m not happy doing this, at this late hour, I don’t like having you feel uncomfortable making a leap of faith… Ultimately, we will after this meeting I know have a lot of discussion and find a way to make sure as we go to the panel in the future we do it in a manner that is more transparent and makes information more available to the public.”   

I’m not holding my breath.  

Unexplained is why Ross and other DOE officials thought that making a billion dollar deal with the same company involved in an egregious scandal that caused the feds to suspend their E-rate funding in the first place would make it more likely that they would get it back again.  

Sadly, the video below missed the speech made by Mindy Rosier on behalf of Miriam Aristy-Ferrer, given before the Panel’s discussion.  The speech I gave is similar to the letter I sent them earlier in the day here.  Here are Miriam’s comments:

I could not be here so a representative is speaking on behalf of CEC 6 myself and many outraged parents in Northern Manhattan.  As our DOE struggles to regain trust, transparency and more funding from our Governor how can we approve such a proposal with Custom Computer Specialists when we know they have cheated our children before?

How can we continue to give them our business and excessive amounts of money when we know they did us wrong before?  If you truly embrace the Chancellor’s new pillar, and community engagement, you will listen to the people tonight.  The bodies in this room are not as many as those on social media outrages at this company even being considered again.  Again I urge you to vote against the proposal to give Custom Computer Specialists more of our money.

It would be the right thing to do and send a strong message about who the DOE is today, not who they were.  By approving this you will prove all the naysayers right that nothing has changed and never will. 

Not to mention you are giving fuel to the opposition to critique the DOE and rightfully so.  Again do the right thing stop corrupt past practices, VOTE no for Custom Computer Specialists, no place for that in our and Carmen’s DOE.  Thank you.  - Miriam Aristy-Farer, CEC 6 President representing 41 Washington Heights, Inwood and W. Harlem elementary and middle schools.

Last night proved once and for all that that the contracting and accountability reforms that were supposed to improve mayoral control are NOT working.   Yet de Blasio argued in Albany yesterday that the State Legislature should make mayoral control permanent, leading Chalkbeat to say: the move towards mayoral control “illustrates a growing consensus about how the city’s schools should be governed.”  Really? 

 “Before mayoral control, the city’s school system was balkanized,” de Blasio said. “School boards exerted great authority with little accountability and we saw far too many instances of mismanagement, waste and corruption…. [Making mayoral control permanent] would build predictability into the system, which is important for bringing about the deep, long-range reforms that are needed.”


Yup. Making mayoral control permanent would guarantee that the next mayor, whoever he or she may be, could push even harder to privatize our public schools, close them by the hundreds, and push NYC kids to corporate-run charters and outsource their education to tech vendors, testing and curriculum companies – and get whatever corrupt contracts they like approved, no matter what watchdogs warn or how parents, teachers and community residents feel.  It would be playing right into the hand of the hedgefund/privatizers/ profiteers.


Funny, as opposed to this “growing consensus” for mayoral control that Chalkbeat imagines, many key Democratic Party groups in Seattle have voted against giving their Mayor two out of seven appointees on their school board.  And Chuy Garcia, who is in a run-off against Rahm Emanuel for mayor of Chicago, supports eliminating mayoral control in that town and creating an elected school board – though Chicago has had one of the longest runs of mayoral control of any school district in the country.  I don’t know of any city that has adopted mayoral control since Washington DC adopted it in 2007.


According to the WSJ, after his testimony yesterday, de Blasio had a closed door meeting with Gov. Cuomo, already in negotiations for the future of our schools.   Be afraid, be very afraid. 



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

News update on immense DOE contract, worth up to $1 billion, for IT company implicated in scandal to be voted on tonight by PEP

See also articles on this highly questionable contract yesterday and today from the NY Post, Daily News and Chalkbeat NY.

Every so often I find out something in the area of education policy-making that causes the top of my head to blow off.  Three years ago it was inBloom, and though the plan to provide a tremendous amount of children's personal information to this corporation who would store it, package it, and make it available to vendors without parental consent caused great concern and controversy, it took years of protest by parents throughout the country before we managed to shut inBloom down.

On Sunday afternoon, my head exploded again when I realized that Custom Computer Specialists, supposed to receive an immense contract potentially worth more than $2 billion over nine years was the same firm involved in a scandalous kickback scheme just a few years ago, in which millions of dollars of public funds were stolen, and which led to the conviction and imprisonment of DOE consultant Ross Lanham.

I immediately blogged and tweeted about my discovery (made after re-reading my own 2011 testimony before the City Council .)  On Sunday night and Monday morning, reporters started calling DOE about the contract, to inquire what was going on but got few answers.

On Monday at 5:30 PM, members of the Panel for Education Policy Contract committee gathered at Tweed for their regularly scheduled meeting with  David Ross, Director of Contracts and Purchasing for DOE since 2004, and Courtenaye Jackson-Chase, general counsel to DOE,  who has worked in the legal department since 2006.  Both were thus clearly aware of the Ross Lanham scandal when it erupted in the news in 2011, in which CCS was found not only to have provided kickbacks to Lanham, but to have profited from the scheme itself. See the Special Investigator's report here.

Along with Ross and Jackson-Chase, gathered around a table in a meeting room at Tweed were Chair of the Contract committee, Robert Powell, the Bronx Borough President's appointee, committee members Isaac Carmignani, a mayoral appointee and Deb Dillingham, Queens appointee.    Missing were Contract committee members Elzora Cleveland and Roberto Soto-Carrion (son of Gladys Carrion, NYC Commissioner of Children's Services ), both Mayoral appointees, and Manhattan appointee Laura Szingmond. Mayoral appointees Lori Podvesker and chair of the PEP  Vanessa Leung also attended. (Here is a full list of PEP members.)

Right before the meeting began, reporters in the audience started getting emails from DOE flacks announcing that the price of the contract had just been reduced by almost 50%, from $225 million per year, for five years, with an option to renew for another four years -potentially worth more than $2 billion, down to $127.5 million per year,  worth as much as $1.15 billion.  The fact that they had managed to cut the contract by almost 50% in the last 24 hours - as we know since PEP members were not told this previously -- was clearly meant to dismiss the controversy; to me it also provided strong evidence that this contract was hugely inflated in the first place.

During the ensuing discussion, Robert Powell asked why the DOE was spending so much for internet wiring without a plan to provide the electricity in many schools to make online access possible.  Without answering this question, Ross said that the "process and the contracts were structured around being able to leverage E-rate reimbursement" of about $120 million over five years, without mentioning that the DOE had been cut off from federal E-rate funds since 2011 as a result of the Lanham scandal, according to information months ago provided the NY Times by Comptroller Stringer.

Even though billions have already been spent on wiring classrooms for the internet,  Ross and Hal Friedlander, chief information officer of DOE said these funds had to be "refreshed" every three to five years, in order to upgrade the connectivity of schools, especially now that cell phones will be allowed in the classroom and to enable online testing.

Ross said that the Lanham scandal was a "horror story" that had led to "soul-searching" and "significant changes," including the fact that DOE now has staff members to oversee contracts, who have each taken a "full day" of training on how to manage contracts. (!)  Ross also assured panel members that CCS had provided a "corrective plan" that features a promise that they "will contact SCI [the Special Commissioner of Investigation] or the appropriate agency if there is any suspicion of wrongdoing," though apparently not paying back any of the money they overcharged NYC.

Ross added that many DOE officials, including himself, had been forced by the feds to undergo "E-rate training" and they are now in "discussions" with the feds to try to persuade them to resume providing these funds. In the meanwhile, he insisted, the PEP must approve this contract right away, so that it could be registered with the Comptroller by late March, in hope of getting federal reimbursement this fiscal year.

Thus the argument seems to be that DOE must spend billions  every few years to upgrade connectivity whether or not schools have the electrical capacity for computers, CCS should get this contract as they promised to be improve their behavior in the future, and PEP members must approve this contract without delay, in order to persuade the feds to cover part of the huge cost of contract to a company that had been involved in the scandal that caused the feds to suspend E-rate funds in the first place.

Additional concerns revealed in Juan Gonzalez' column today include that CCS bid millions more than competing vendors, and that the CEO of the company had earlier set up a real estate LLC with Lanham, at an address identical to CCS.   According to DOE documentation provided by a reporter, DOE awarded the contract anyway to CCS because  among other things,  "Unlike the other bidders, CCS has at least 15 years of experience in supporting the DOE (!) and other school districts with their E-rate programs and other technology needs."

Bravo, to Public Advocate Tish James, who according to Yoav Gonen in the NY Post is calling for DOE to withdraw the contract.  Geoff Decker in Chalkbeat NY writes that the lack of information provided the public and even PEP members  calls into question the 2010 revisions to mayoral control, which were supposed to provide more transparency and accountability around the awarding of contracts.

In this vein, the full documentation of this contract as of 11 AM today is still not posted on the DOE website, nor for ANY of the other contracts to be voted on tonight by the PEP, despite promises by the DOE that they would do so each month at least  24 hours before the panel meeting.

Below is an email I plan to send today to  Chancellor Farina and the PEP members; feel free to copy or send your own message.  Their emails are all here.

Dear Chancellor Fariña and the members of the Panel for Educational Policy:

I urge you to withdraw the five year contract to Custom Computer Specialists (CCS) due to be voted on tonight.  There is no possible justification for awarding such a huge contract to a company that was already implicated in a corrupt kickback scheme in 2011.  If it is true that the in just the past few days,  the Department of Education has renegotiated the price of the contract from $225 million per year to $127 million per year, that is only further evidence that the price was significantly inflated in the first place. 

In the meantime, please release all the documentation concerning the bidding of this contract, what DOE’s current status is regarding the E-rate program and whether the city’s federal funding from the program has now been reinstated, whether CCS ever repaid the funds they overcharged DOE, and why so many millions of dollars must still be  spent on internet connectivity, given that nearly two years ago, in the November 2013 capital plan, the DOE claimed that “all of DOE’s school buildings and their classrooms have broadband connectivity and wireless access.”

FYI, for $125 million per year of city spending -- less than the amount proposed to be given this vendor -- the DOE could double the number of seats in the capital plan, according to the NYC Independent Budget Office, and significantly alleviate school overcrowding.

This highly questionable contract should NOT go forward until parents, elected officials and parents can be reassured in a fully transparent manner that it is absolutely necessary and has been awarded properly  to the right vendor.

Yours sincerely, Leonie Haimson