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New York City Schools: 'Challenges Unlike Any in the Country'

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For more than a decade, school officials in New York City have had little choice but to put off nearly all maintenance and repair work in the city's more than 1,000 public schools.

Now the bills are coming due.

While communities nationwide have fallen behind in their efforts to preserve educational facilities, few--if any--face problems on the scale of those confronting the New York City Board of Education, which runs the nation's largest school system.

"The schools in New York City are a tragedy,'' laments State Senator James Donovan, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "They are facing challenges unlike any in the country.''

Horror Stories

The city's newspapers have been filled in recent months with horror stories--tales of buildings in which more crumbled plaster lies on the floor than can be found still clinging to the walls; of malfunctioning ventilation systems that turn basement classrooms into torture chambers; of fire-damaged buildings left unrepaired, but still in use, for months.

Even routine tasks, such as replacing light bulbs and broken windows, are sometimes left undone for months or even years, teachers complain. Complicated work rules, they say, often prevent building janitors from performing such chores, forcing them to wait for repair crews that never come.

And even when work is completed, a spokesman for the city teachers' union complains, errors can end up negating whatever benefit is accomplished.

"At one school, they replastered the walls before they fixed the roof,'' recalls Neill Rosenfeld of the United Federation of Teachers. "So, of course, it rained that night and ruined the plastering job.''

At the same time, a wave of immigration, combined with high birth rates in many of the city's neighborhoods, is creating conditions of severe overcrowding in a growing number of elementary schools.

City officials say they will build eight schools to relieve the pressure, but they acknowledge that bureaucratic red tape could delay their opening for up to 10 years.

"We just don't understand why it takes so long to build a new school,'' says Sandra Feldman, president of the U.F.T. "We think there has to be a way to do this faster.''

Although Mayor Edward I. Koch and other city leaders have agreed to spend an extra $91 million on school maintenance over the next three years, Ms. Feldman and others say that amount will only scratch the surface of the district's multi-billion-dollar backlog of critically needed repairs.

A Victim of Budget Cuts

The origins of New York City's current difficulties can be found in an earlier crisis: the 1975 fiscal emergency that brought the city government to the brink of disaster and led to draconian cutbacks in public services.

In the wake of that crisis, routine maintenance and repair work in the schools fell victim to some of the deepest budget cuts in the city's history, education officials explain.

As in other cities faced with revenue shortfalls, the choice was between postponing maintenance--a course that brought few immediate complaints--and laying off large numbers of teachers, a move that would likely have sparked immediate outrage from parents and unions alike.

While state matching funds were available to help pay for repairs and other school needs, the city was too "fiscally impotent'' to raise its required share, Senator Donovan notes.

"They are so far behind now I'm not sure they will ever get ahead of the curve,'' he says. "By the time they fix the problems they have now, they will have accumulated even more.''

School-board officials say they recognize the seriousness of the situation and are doing everything in their power to resolve it.

"Disrepair in the schools sends the wrong message to our students,'' Nathan Quinones, chancellor of the city's schools, said in a recent statement.

"If we don't care about the schools, they may wonder, do we really care about them?''

But the board lacks taxing authority and must look to the city council to budget the funds it requires. According to Ms. Feldman, there was little pressure on either the board of education or the council to deal with the problem until she persuaded Mayor Koch to make a surprise inspection of several city schools.

"As soon as the Mayor got inspired,'' she says, "things started moving.''

Things may be moving, school officials and others say, but it is not clear at what speed.

Although the city has increased money for maintenance and minor repairs, the Mayor and the school board are still far apart on a long-range plan for new construction and major rehabilitation work. The board would like to spend some $4.5 billion over the next 10 years; Mr. Koch says the city can only afford about half that amount.

As in past crises, some city leaders are looking to the state government in Albany for a helping hand.

The U.F.T. has suggested that the state sell $1 billion in bonds to help with the repair efforts. Mr. Donovan says, however, that the proposal "wouldn't be well received'' by voters in upstate New York.

In the long run, according to Mr. Donovan, a solution to the district's problems will have to start at the local level, especially with the parents of the city's schoolchildren.

"The schools belong to them,'' he says.

But in many parts of the city, parents' groups are weak or nonexistent, notes Mr. Rosenfeld of the U.F.T. In many neighborhoods, he says, the vast majority of parents are recent immigrants from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean who have little or no experience with political activism.

This pattern, he contends, has contributed to inequities in the way the district allocates funds available for repair work.

"In general, the schools in white neighborhoods are in much better shape than those in the Bronx or other poor neighborhoods,'' he says. "The parents' organizations there are much stronger, and they have better political representation on the board. It's basically the old squeaky-wheel syndrome.''

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