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Overhaul of N.Y.C. School-Maintenance Program Proposed

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Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines last week proposed a major overhaul of New York City's severely backlogged school-maintenance program.

But the plan, which comes in the wake of criticism from parents and city officials, carries a $7.5 billion price tag at a time when all city departments have been ordered to cut expenses.

"While our children for years have been paying the consequences of two decades of deferred maintenance and neglect, the time has come for us, this community's leaders, to pay as well,'' Mr. Cortines said in a statement accompanying his five-year capital plan.

"The bill is a hefty one,'' he added, "but I am certain no one would argue that our children deserve less.''

The chancellor's plan was released less than a week after the New York City Council issued a blistering report on the travails of the schools' maintenance system.

"This is a disgrace and embarrassment,'' Peter Vallone, the speaker of the city council, said in proposing that additional money be withheld from the city school board for repairing and maintaining facilities until the system is revamped.

Mr. Vallone called for turning maintenance money over to the city's neighborhood school boards.

The asbestos crisis that delayed the opening of schools this fall spawned the council's review of the maintenance program.

'Teetering on the Brink'

Mr. Cortines proposes to shift the focus of the district's capital program from constructing new buildings to repairing existing structures.

In large measure, the proposed shift in emphasis was spurred by the staggering amount of work that needs to be done.

According to Mr. Cortines's report, only 29 of the city's 1,073 schools are problem-free, with 85 percent of them "teetering on the brink'' of major systems failure.

Under Mr. Cortines's plan, schools would be able to decide for themselves which minor repairs needed to be made and pay for them through the central board's division of school facilities with funds allocated by the board of education on the basis of need and square footage.

The facilities division would have to report back to school custodians within 60 days after receiving a work order on whether and when a repair was to be made. Currently, according to the chancellor's report, most work orders "sit in limbo, often for years at a time.''

The proposal also calls for custodians to be made accountable to building principals. Principals and custodians would work in concert to draft an annual maintenance plan for their schools.

Mr. Cortines would also restructure skilled-trade staffs to build more flexibility into a system that is now divided into more than 25 specialties.

Some of the changes could take place immediately; others would require approval by the city council or unions representing district workers.

Although school district officials acknowledge some responsibility for the deterioration of the schools, they place much of the blame on the city and other governmental entities for providing inadequate funding.

A five-year capital plan presented by the board of education in 1989 sought $10 billion to help reduce a backlog of 35,000 work requests. The board received $4.3 billion.

Since then, the backlog has grown to 50,000 unfilled work orders.

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