Monday, December 8, 2008

Syracuse School Renovation Phase I Finally Moves Forward

Michael Lefko and Jennifer Brennan

It took more than two years of discussion but only 40 minutes to approve a plan which will begin renovations on Syracuse City Schools. Thursday morning in City Hall, some people were forced to listen from outside the SyraStat room as it could not hold the crowd on hand when the Joint Schools Construction Board voted unanimously for a Phase I plan that includes upgrades for six schools.

“What we need to do now is put shovels in the ground and make this a feel good story,” Education Commissioner Calvin Corriders said, pictured below with Board of Education President Laurie Menkin.

The JSCB began in 2006 to oversee citywide renovations of the Syracuse School District. The board consists of Mayor Matthew Driscoll, Syracuse Superintendent Daniel Lowengard, Board of Education President Laurie Menkin, President of the Common Council Bea Gonzalez, two commissioners from the School Board and two councilors. 

The original proposal for renovations was defeated November 20th. The superintendent, along with all of the Board of Education members on the JSCB voted not to begin Phase I because they were not happy that the mayor failed to provide a definite plan for Blodgett School. 

“The school district looks more at the education part when we look at the schools and where they are and the families they serve,” Menkin said. “We have that education component that’s more important than cost.”

Thursday morning the JSCB presented a revised proposal that included a written agreement for Blodgett setting aside $2.5 million from Phase I which will be used to plan for renovation or replacement of the school. “The Blodgett Planning Agreement is written in stone,” Lowengard said. “It was a major change in understanding between the school district and the board.”

With the knowledge that Blodgett would be accounted for, the members of the school board felt comfortable enough to change their votes.

“I am excited about this opportunity to have a different planning process for Blodgett,” Menkin said. “I am pleased to vote yes.”

Mayor Driscoll was frustrated when his original proposal was voted down but after the meeting he admitted the extra time was beneficial.

“The two weeks were definitely worth it,” Driscoll said. “I am very pleased and grateful to all the people that took the time to sit down and discuss our plan. We are moving forward and not looking in the rearview mirror.”

Blodgett supporters have been vocal in their efforts to save the school. At the November 12th meeting of the board of education so many people spoke on behalf of the school that the actual board agenda was not discussed for an hour and a half. 

“We need to be a voice loud and reckoned with,” Paul Nojaim, member of the West Side Initiative said. 

The following Tuesday, Superintendent Lowengard met with Blodgett parents and students. An hour before he arrived, more than 500 people turned up for a rally outside the school.

The $46 million cost to renovate the school made it impractical to put in Phase I but people feared that if Blodgett were not renovated in this phase, it would be forgotten. The 

proposal approved Thursday, with funds set aside for Blodgett, appeased those fighting to save the school.

“I’m grateful for you that have listened to us and put Blodgett back on the screen publicly,” Anne Messenger of the Near West Side Initiative Board told the JSCB.

Blodgett is accounted for, but still no definite plans have been set for the school in terms of renovations.

“I’m more happy than I was…guardedly happy,” Messenger said.

Others still feel the JSCB did not do enough for Blodgett. Even people with no affiliation to the school are concerned about the lack of a concrete plan.

“If I were a Blodgett parent I would be P.Oed,” Zeke Ronnow, an East Side parent said. “It’s appalling to me that they [children] are in those schools.”

Ronnow, pictured at left, is concerned about the children that attend Blodgett but he has two children of his own who attend H.W. Smith, just east of Syracuse University. The failure to reach a decision by the JSCB on Blodgett prevented work from starting on any other schools. H.W Smith has had to incorporate all possible space to keep its already overcrowded school functioning.

“We just got a part time resource teacher,” Principal Sharon Birnkrant said. “She’s working in the Hopper Room where the custodians keep their mops.”

The JSCB voted to give H.W. Smith only baseline renovations but even that is a much needed start.

“Here’s the unbelievable thing; our building is not even handicap accessible,” Birnkrant said. “We don’t have an elevator. If a kid breaks their leg they can’t come to school.” 

“When it rains all the windows leak,” Birnkrant said. “I’m just hoping for a roof, windows and that they fix the bathrooms and give us a few more. We have two bathrooms for all of the women in the building.”

Ironically, a Syracuse Education Commissioner also has to suffer because there is no handicap accessibility. 

“One of our board members [Nancy McCarty] walks with a walker,” Birnkrant said. “She comes in here to tutor kids and literally has to lift her body up the stairs every week.”

The proposal for Phase I renovations is finished but work will not begin on the schools right away. 

“The bureaucracy in this matter has been overwhelming,” Lowengard said. “We have already been at this for two-and-a-half years and the now the architects have to design the plans.”

Mayor Driscoll agreed that it will be a long process.

“The board has made a decision, but our work does not end here by any means,” Driscoll said.

More than half a dozen reporters interviewed members of the JSCB out in the hall after the meeting had concluded. After he was done being interviewed, Mayor Driscoll stepped off to the side and waited until the reporters had finished with Anne Messenger, of the Near West Side Initiative. He then took her arm and as they walked down the hall he said,

 “We are going to need your help on this one.”

A long process had come to an end but work has only just begun. 

No comments: