March 20, 2013
City Council members grilled education officials at a budget hearing on Tuesday over why the city can’t remove dangerous toxins from public schools sooner than 10 years. The city has allocated over $800 million for the project, but officials gave multiple reasons why the city can’t complete the project in two to three years. (Read More/Watch Video)
The Department of Education is in the last year of its FY 2010-2014 Capital Plan and proposed at the hearing an amendment that would increase the plan by $600 million. The proposed total budget would increase from $11.2 billion in the 2012 Adopted Plan to $11.8 billion to be spent on capacity and capital investments for new seats, new buildings and critical repairs to existing facilities.
According to DOE, the additional $600 million in funding stems from $290 million advanced by the city, $200 million to repair damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and $110 million from the City Council and borough presidents. The new funding bumps up the number of new seats from 33,888 to 34,819.
The most dramatic aspect of the hearing occurred when Mr. Jackson and fellow council members asked Schools Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm why the city can’t accelerate the timetable to remove and replace polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-containing lighting fixtures in over 700 public schools.
“We are the only locale in the country that has any plan to address this issue,” said Grimm.
Chagrined Council Member Gale Brewer responded that maybe other locales don’t have PCBs.
“Everyone in the country has PCBs,” Grimm said.
“Maybe they don’t have PCBs falling out of lamps,” Brewer retorted, alluding to complaints from school staff and administrators that PCBs are leaking from ceiling lights in classrooms.
DOE said that PCBs will have been removed from almost 100 schools by the beginning of next school year.
“I want to make very clear that we’re very confident that there’s no danger to anybody,” Grimm noted.
Again, Brewer was displeased.
“Nobody believes you when you say that.”
Jackson expressed disbelief over Grimm's comments and said that they were unacceptable to the City Council.
The city is committing over $800 million to remove the dangerous toxins, but Grimm said there isn’t enough capacity in the industry to remove them sooner.
“So you’re saying there isn’t enough contractors who can do the work?” asked Jackson.
Grimm then said that DOE’s capacity is limited too because the work is restricted to the summertime to avoid endangering children.
Jackson then asked if more money were available, could the city hire hundreds of contractors to fan out to the 700 schools to remove the toxins more quickly.
Grimm said, “We would have to evaluate that,” provoking Jackson to bow his head in frustration.