Mayor Spano plans to ‘plow through,’ build new schools as Yonkers waits for more money

Yonkers Schools Superintendent Edwin M. Quezada and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano talk about plans for 4 new schools. Mark Vergari, mvergari@lohud.com

YONKERS – Sitting around, waiting for money from Albany to rain down on this city, is not how the mayor plans to build four new schools.

“Let’s operate as if we have the money. Let’s just plow through,” Mayor Mike Spano said during a recent interview at City Hall. “Because if we sit here, and every day we have this discussion, and the discussion is, ‘Well, that’s a nice plan, mayor, we don’t have the money to do it’ — then we’re not going to get anything done.”

That said, dollars from Albany will soon be needed. The city is planning a $523 million construction phase, including the building of four schools, as part of its $2 billion “Rebuild Yonkers Schools” vision, originally proposed in February 2016. And they’ve already begun acquiring the needed property for three new schools.

Yonkers Schools Superintendent Edwin Quezada and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano are pictured in front of the closed St. Denis School on McLean Avenue in Yonkers, Feb. 28, 2019. (Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)

Spano thinks he’ll have more leverage to convince the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase state aid for the project if plans for the first new school, a pre-K to 8 school near Ravine Avenue, are complete and shovels are ready to break ground.

This could happen before the end of this year.

The state government bureaucracy “sometimes does not move unless they see crisis,” Spano said. “And I’m not trying to create a crisis, but I’m trying to highlight a crisis, and the only way I can highlight is to move forward.”

And there is a crisis, one the mayor and school district officials have spent years telling lawmakers in Albany about with the help of lobbying firms, student field trips to the state capital, local rallies, and social media campaigns.

Their case: the school district is more than 4,400 students over capacity and increasingly over-crowded each year; school buildings are an average 75 years old and crumbling, with emergency work cropping up on a regular basis; and the city cannot afford to expand and repair its schools without extra state cash.

City officials insist that Yonkers is unfairly expected to pay for at least 25 percent of total costs, even though major school renovation projects in Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester were almost 100 percent paid for by state reimbursements. 

Yonkers City Council President Michael Khader agreed with the mayor’s approach, saying he is “cautiously optimistic” about moving ahead with the plan without all the necessary funding.

“We want to proceed forward as if the (financial) numbers will improve. However, we can’t just rush in with our eyes closed,” he said, adding that construction might have to be scaled down.

“The concern is not ‘Do we want these schools? Do we need these schools?’ We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew,” he said. “We have to show those in Albany that we’re working diligently in securing property.”

So far, Albany has taken small steps to support the Yonkers project. But the state hasn’t been willing to consider increasing its building aidreimbursement rate for the city because of the precedent it could set for tampering with aid formulas.

Here’s a brief timeline of what’s happened in the three years since Yonkers started its #RebuildYonkersSchools campaign: 

  • Feb. 1, 2016: Mayor Spano and then-interim schools Superintendent Edwin Quezada announced plans for a 13-year construction plan to rebuild and repair the district’s 39 schools, including building a new Gorton High School. 
  • June 16, 2016: Lawmakers in Albany signed a bill authorizing Yonkers to create a “Joint Schools Construction Board” to oversee the project.
  • Sept. 30, 2016: Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed that bill.
  • June 22, 2017: The state Legislature passed a bill that accelerated aid to the district, guaranteeing an additional $78 million in reimbursements during the early years of construction.
  • Dec. 20, 2017: Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed that bill.
  • Dec. 18, 2018: The nine voting members of the Yonkers Joint Schools Construction Board were sworn in. The group is led by the mayor, school board president and superintendent. Other members include parents, a former teacher, a resident and two city officials.

Spano has a few ideas to pitch state lawmakers on helping the city pay for the project.

One is increasing the amount of aid the city gets from Yonkers-based Empire State Casino, which came under new management in January. The state has received increases in its annual share of casino revenue, while Yonkers, as the host municipality, has received the same annual amount of $19.6 million from the casino since 2008-09.

Another option would be for the state Legislature to pass a capital block grant — a one-time shot of cash earmarked for the Yonkers project.

Those are the most feasible options.

The third option, to change the state reimbursement formula, has been met with “a real reluctance,” Spano said. Yonkers, and several other Westchester school districts, say the formula shortchanges poor municipalities located in wealthy counties with high property values.This is why Yonkers would receivea smaller percentage of aid than did Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

“I’ll be back here every year, and every new mayor after me is going to be back here every year, unless you can figure out a way to fix our problems,” Spano said.

But the mayor remains optimistic, in part, because Yonkers’ representatives in the state Senate are now among the top brass of state lawmakers. Namely, state Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat, is now senate majority leader, making her part of the Albany power trio — until now known as the “three men in a room” — that negotiate legislation behind closed doors.

“Do you know how many mayors want the senate president to come from their city? Every mayor wants that,” Spano said. “It’s a comforting thought, whether it works out for us or not, to know that someone in that room understands our needs intimately.”

Plus, state Sen. Shelley Mayer, also a Democrat, is now chair of the Senate education committee and is well aware of the needs of Yonkers’ overcrowded, broken down school buildings.

Although unsuccessful in achieving a higher reimbursement rate for Yonkers in the past, Stewart-Cousins and Mayer said it is still a priority.

“We have been pushing the Division of Budget to really try and get this to a rate that would be affordable for the city and allow for the rebuilding so this effort continues,” Stewart-Cousins said.

“The current situation is that we have to fight for more reimbursement or a direct grant of capital,” Mayer said. “We’re right in the middle of the budget process and we’re going to fight for every dollar we can get for Yonkers.”

Morris Peters, spokesman for the state Division of Budget, did not directly address Yonkers’ request for additional state funding for the project.

“Every year the Governor proposes a budget that directs the largest increases to high need districts such as Yonkers, and this year’s budget is no different,” he wrote in an email.

In the meantime, the city has begun purchasing or is negotiating prices to buy property for the new schools. The school on Ravine Avenue would likely be the first under construction, which could happen before the end of the year.

The three planned new schools would be located in ZIP codes where the majority of the district’s 27,000 students live. They would be designed as “community schools,” a model used in predominantly urban, poor areas. The idea is that students and their families are provided with so-called “wrap-around services,” including health care, adult education, and mental health services.

“It’s servicing the entire community, and when the adults see themselves as part of the community, believe me they will stay in that school,” Quezada said. “They will take care of their schools and they will protect their schools.”

Here is an overview of each of the proposed schools:

Ravine Avenue school

Grade levels: Pre-K to 8th grade

Capacity: 800

Project budget: $73.4 million to $90.2 million

Status: The hope is to start construction in late 2019. City officials approved Conifer Realty as the master developer in May 2018 for this project and an affordable housing plan in the area near Ravine Avenue. City spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin said in January that it wasn’t clear whether Conifer or the city would build the school, which would be on a former municipal parking lot at the corner with Point Street. Preliminary construction plans are under review by the state Education Department, and the school construction board hired Pleasantville-based Savin Engineers as a program manager to oversee the project. 

A vacant lot on the corner of Point Street and Ravine Avenue in Yonkers, Feb. 27, 2019.  (Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)

Former St. Denis School

Grade levels: Pre-K to grade 5

Capacity: 540

Project budget: $52.4 million to $65 million

Address: 470 Van Cortlandt Park Ave.

Status: This new school could be second in the construction line-up, pending approvals. The Archdiocese of New York has reached a “tentative deal” with Yonkers, Gilmartin said, to sell the site of the vacant, former Catholic school, a convent and rectory for an estimated $3.8 million, finalizing a deal that has been talked about for years. The city would finance the deal with local bonds and a partial reimbursement from the state. The old school would likely be razed and a new school constructed. 

Grant Park school

Grade levels: Pre-K to grade 8

Capacity: 800

Project budget: $96 million to $107.6 million

Address: N/A

Status: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the transfer of this land, which used to house the Mulford Gardens public housing site, to the city for construction of a school, according to Gilmartin. The vacant lot, which is near Grant Park, is located at St. Josephs Avenue and Loehr Place. HUD agreed to give the district this site in exchange for a different property where the Yonkers Housing Authority plans to build senior housing.

New Gorton High School

Grade levels: 9-12

Capacity: 1,400

Project budget: $137 million to $165 million

Address: 100 Shonnard Place

Status: The district recently completed about $7.4 million in upgrades to the 96-year-old high school — updating its roof, ceiling, lights, hallways and gym floor, adding classrooms, improving access for those with disabilities, and updating bathrooms. Gorton is one of several Yonkers schools where “short-term” projects have been undertaken to address immediate needs. Demolishing this building won’t happen for some time. Its replacement, which is to be built on the athletic field behind the current school, isn’t anticipated to open for as long as 15 years.