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P.S. 160 battle gets nasty as meeting is closed early

The battle for a new annex for P.S. 160 took an ugly turn last week.

Parents, teachers and students faced off against Community Board 12’s Zoning and Variance Committee to ask the board to approve the project, which would build a five-story annex at 1061-1071 52nd Street. The annex would be located next to P.S. 160, 5105 Fort Hamilton Parkway.

The public hearing was expected to last several hours, giving anyone who wanted to speak three minutes to do so. However, Committee Chair Peter Rebenwurzel ended the meeting abruptly after about an hour.

Problems started when Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who opposes the annex, said the overflow of students at P.S. 160 — the school was built for 535 kids but has 821 — should attend other neighborhood schools, which he said were under capacity.

P.S. 160’s teachers and parents were visibly upset by his comments. Ellen Driesen, School District 20’s United Federation of Teacher’s (UFT) representative, asked for the microphone to address Hikind’s “inaccurate” remarks but Rebenwurzel refused, saying Driesen already had her public speaking time.

Parents and teachers began banging their fists on the tables and chanting, “Let her speak.”

Instead, Rebenwurzel concluded the meeting, denying anyone else an opportunity to voice their opinions about the annex.

After the meeting, Driesen said she wanted to point out that the schools Hikind referred to must remain underutilized by law.

“P.S. 164 has special ed children and there are mandates. Some classes can’t exceed 12 students,” she said.

Hikind also insisted that it would be financially unsound for the city Department of Education (DOE) to build an annex, which would cost $33 million to construct, when public schools’ budgets are being slashed because of the global recession.

“That is an incredible amount of money to spend when they are going to cut back what’s needed,” Hikind said.

However, Fred Maley of the School Construction Authority (SCA) said that the DOE has already set aside the money for the annex and if it is not used, it will be spent next year on another school construction project. The money would not be given to public schools facing budget cuts.

“The capital money will not be transferred to expense costs,” Maley explained.

Members of the Zoning and Variance Committee also expressed concern with the annex’s size. Rebenwurzel wondered how much space would be between the annex and the homes located in back of the building.

The annex’s architect, James Elberfeld, said the annex would be four feet from the property line on one side and eight feet on another side. Elberfeld noted that the annex would be facing garages, not homeowners’ windows.

Tami Rachelson, the DOE’s deputy director of real estate, shot down any concerns about the annex’s five-story height.

She noted that a few years ago, the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA) approved a seven-story condominium for the same site that would house the annex.

“I live directly across the street from this property,” said Linda Morgan. “Every private dwelling built up. They built two and three stories above a two-story building. So what’s the problem?”

The DOE is ready to purchase the 52nd Street lot where the annex would be located. A deal has been reached with the lot owner but Rachelson said she couldn’t reveal the cost because a contract has yet to be signed.

“We’re paying market rates and not above market rates for the property,” she said.

“The lot is empty. It’s been vacant for 10 years,” said Lourdes Roman, a P.S. 160 Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) member. “It’s just a breeding ground for rodents. In the summertime, it’s a breeding ground for mosquitoes.”

P.S. 160 is located in Borough Park, which maintains a large Orthodox Jewish population. Hikind said 90 percent of those families send their children to yeshivas, and not public schools.

According to DOE records, half of P.S. 160’s student population receive English-as-a-Second- Language instruction and 82 percent live in poverty. The student body is 67 percent Asian, 20 percent Hispanic, 2.3 percent African-American, and 10 percent white.

Hikind claimed that the majority of P.S. 160’s students are from outside the community.

But P.S. 160 Principal Margaret Russo disagreed, saying, “Twelve percent of our children do not live in our zone. All the rest lived within our zone when they registered.”

The school does not accept students from outside the zoned area, Russo explained.

P.S. 160’s students are learning in severely overcrowded conditions.

“We have the speech teacher working in the broom closet,” said teacher Amy Stark. “The nurse works in the bathroom.”

“Our gym is shared in a small spot in the cafeteria,” said PTA member Theresa Basso. “Our children are entitled to have gym.”

“We do not have a designated music room or science lab,” Russo said.

“We are at 139 percent utilization,” Russo said. “The situation is unfair to the many students and teachers.”

“You cannot work with a class of 33 children and give them one-to-one attention,” Driesen said.

The annex would provide space for 536 students in pre-K to fifth grade, as well as special education students. There would be about 20 classrooms as well as a gym, library, auditorium and cafeteria. The DOE would like to link the annex to P.S. 160 via a one-floor bridge.

Russo said, “It would be morally unconscionable to deny our children the opportunities this initiative will afford them.”

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