BY KEEN BERGER | Starting a school is like having a baby — great joy but a lot more trouble than anyone, including me, ever anticipates. Children mean years of sleepless nights, new worries, moments of pride. Schools are like that, but the birth takes even longer.
Martin and I wanted children. So the first several months after our wedding, we each privately thought it was our own fault that we were infertile. But soon I became pregnant. We bought a house and a puppy, borrowed a bassinet and waited as the fetus grew. My pregnancy book said there was one chance in 16 that our baby would come three weeks early, so I packed my bag.
The due date came and went. More than two weeks later, I woke up crying because there was only one chance in 35 that I would give birth that late. Soon there was no chance at all that my baby would be born. The odds kept receding. Finally, 22 days late, Bethany was born. That was 1968. If it was now, I would have been induced.
Similarly, the birth of 75 Morton St. has been scarily overdue. The entire community knew we wanted “rooms to learn.” But then-Schools Chancellor Klein said the Department of Education could not build us a school because there was no real estate available. That was 2007.
Our private sorrow did not last long, because Irene Kaufman scoured our neighborhood and photographed 10 possible sites. One was 75 Morton, a state-owned building that Assemblymember Deborah Glick had spotted on a long list Albany published of state real estate for sale. That was 2008.
But it took five and a half years, not nine and a half months, to close the deal. The then-chairperson of Community Board 2 (Brad Hoylman), the then-chairperson of C.B. 2’s Social Services Committee (me) and the then-parent leaders of Political Action at P.S. 41 and P.S. 3 (Irene Kaufman, Ann Kjelberg and Tamara Rowe — their children now graduated) met to strategize.
We decided to have a large hearing (hundreds came), to choose one site, to have another rally, and then still another rally, with balloons, cookies, a man on stilts, babies and more. Hundreds became thousands. All our political leaders took notice. The disabilities community and the churches and political clubs became involved.
Many times we might have awakened in tears. We were told that the city did not bid on 75 Morton, that it was no longer for sale. The city said the problem lay with the state (three different governors). The state said the problem was in D.O.E. (three different chancellors). And from the announcement last spring, when the city agreed to buy the building, until now, the problems have been city and state lawyers in a room, who also discovered that Verizon and Time Warner had copper wires in the building that no one in the city or state knew were there.
But we could not give up, because every day the need keeps growing. Stroller gridlock, playground crowding, waitlists for kindergarten; gay couples having children (hooray), women in their 30s and 40s having twins (hooray), Village couples no longer moving to New Jersey when children are born (hooray). When Bethany went to P.S. 3 there were 200 students, some from other neighborhoods; now there are 800, all from this community. Every grade — for all the schools in Lower Manhattan, as well as in Chelsea and the Village — has more children than the previous year. Every classroom is overcrowded. Special-education children are tutored in the halls or bused way Uptown. The only middle school in C.B. 2 left in June 2011.
More and more people chanted, “Just Imagine,” which became the mantra for 75 Morton. Political leaders — Quinn, Stringer, Glick, Duane, Chin — caught the message and repeated it. The press picked it up, not only The Villager year after year, but also TV news and radio. The torch was passed to new community board chairpersons (Hamilton, Gruber) who repeatedly made it C.B. 2’s top priority.
In the sad chaos surrounding St. Vincent’s closure, the city asked if we still wanted 75 Morton. Yes, we said. Prove it, they said. The Live and Learn Coalition was born, with political clubs (Village Independent Democrats and Jonathan Geballe), with churches (Mark Erson of St. John’s and Donna Schaper from Judson) and numerous block associations all demanding affordable housing, lower buildings, more parks, and…75 Morton. Finally it happened, in spring 2012 — a birth. No, not quite. A handshake, an agreement, but no signed papers.
A task force was created by C.B. 2 Chairperson David Gruber, including Shino Tanikawa, a P.S. 3 parent who in 2007 prepared a slide show about the area’s need for new schools, and in 2011 became chairperson of the Community Education Council for all of District 2. A new parent group emerged, the Envisioning Group, led by current P.S. 3 and a P.S. 41 parents (Heather Lortie and Risa Fisher) with a facilitator found by Nick Gottlieb (head parent at P.S. 3). They brought together parents from six public schools to decide what to tell C.B. 2, C.E.C. 2, the School Construction Authority and D.O.E. Unanimous resolutions followed from C.B. 2 and C.E.C. 2. And the S.C.A. and D.O.E. listened.
Finally, we have a birth certificate, on July 22, a signed purchase agreement, with a down payment. No more puzzling odds, doubts or delays: The school is real.
None of this would have happened without our political leaders. Speaker Chris Quinn got the city to agree, Assemblymember Glick and state Senator Hoylman got the state to act. Nor would it have happened without hundreds of others, too many to name. It took a Village, and it took six years.
There is much to celebrate. We have assurances for:
• One public middle school, not a charter or private school;
• A small school within the same building for children with severe learning problems;
• Large windows for natural light;
• A full-service gym, with a high ceiling;
• A smaller half gym, for dance and fitness;
• Technology throughout the building;
• Science labs, language labs, art studios (not sure how many);
• A full-service library, with wireless computers;
• A cafeteria that seats 300;
• A play yard, not a parking lot.
It’s all cause for celebration. We drank champagne when Bethany was finally born. But we did not then realize that birth was only the beginning. The same for 75 Morton. The parents, the community, and the task force want the school to be a shining star, to show the city, the nation and the world what a public middle school can be when we all work for it. We do not yet have that.
• We want 600 students in the middle school, with 60 students in the special-education school. That’s quality education. D.O.E. and S.C.A. say capacity should be 900 and 100.
• We want a 2015 opening date, because current third graders will need a local middle school. The city says 2016, because state employees cannot move out of the building until October, and their designers cannot assess the walls and floors until the building is empty.
• We want an auditorium big enough for the whole school and also for the community at night. They say the auditorium will seat only 300.
• We want a wellness clinic, so children who need nutritional advice, special medication, sex education or drug counseling have a trusted place to go. The city says this is unnecessary, since most of our children have private doctors.
• We want a swimming pool. They say that is too expensive, and that maintenance is also expensive. We say we might find a private sponsor.
• We want a separate entrance for the special-needs school, so those students are not overwhelmed by hundreds of middle schoolers. They say, no.
The 75 Morton Street Task Force will hold a hearing Thurs., Aug. 15, at 6:30 p.m., in the C.B. 2 Conference Room, at 3 Washington Square Village (Bleecker St. between LaGuardia Place and Mercer St.) to hear community priorities, which could be from the lists above or could be quite different. C.B. 2 will discuss this at its Executive Committee meeting on Aug. 19. D.O.E. will collect comments. A resolution will be submitted to the City Council, which will vote in October 2013. More work, more time — but don’t give up. Just imagine. Bethany is now a law professor.
Berger is chairperson, C.B. 2 / C.E.C. 2 75 Morton Task Force