Billion-dollar school building program for New York City

TO cope with the crisis of deteriorating physical conditions and overcrowded schools here, New York City will invest $5.2 billion over the next 10 years on building 42 new schools and renovating 146 existing ones. ``We have about $7 [billion] or $8 billion worth of need over the next decade in order to bring public buildings out of their current state of disrepair,'' says Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the New York City Board of Education.

In the present bureaucratic structure, it takes eight to 10 years to build a new school at inflated costs. A 1,200-seat elementary school, for example, costs about $29.5 million, according to the city's 10-year capital plan.

Variables in costs make direct comparisons somewhat misleading, but New York City's record contrasts dramatically with that of other districts around the country. An elementary school in Los Angeles for 600 to 1,000 students takes four to five years to build at a cost of $10 million. The Chicago school system builds a $6 million elementary school for 500 to 900 children in three years.

``The process right now is very slow and very inefficient,'' Mr. Wagner says. ``The dreadful conditions that exist in all too many of our schools are sending a terrible message to children and teachers.''

What cannot be lost sight of is that real people, teachers and kids, spend hours and hours, days and days, years and years, of their lives in these buildings.

Indeed, Ed McNichol, a junior high school teacher in Brooklyn, says he works in a 12-year-old slum.

Some classrooms, says Mr. McNichol, can average 90 to 100 degrees at any time of year. The ventilating system rarely works, and so one room is like an icebox while another feels like a sauna.

``We've had children and teachers who have passed out from the heat,'' McNichol says. ``We've had to move people out of rooms because of leaks from the roof. Pieces of the wall in the gym have fallen down and hit a teacher on the head.''

School conditions in New York are ``not an environment that fosters learning,'' says Amy Linden, chief of staff to the Task Force on Capital Financing and Construction, a special Board of Education panel formed to look at school building for New York City.

The solution championed by most is a new public authority that would be responsible for the actual construction in building and rehabilitating the schools that serve nearly 1 million pupils here. State legislation has been drafted to create such an authority, and specifics are being debated. Funding would most likely continue to be provided by the City of New York, initially precluding the authority from issuing financial bonds or notes.

The causes for the inefficiency and waste are legion. Part of it stems from cuts made during the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970s, says Barry Cox, a City Hall spokesman, when many technical experts were lost.

At the same time, rising school enrollments added pressure to new classroom space. Half of the more than 1,000 school buildings are more than 45 years old. And one consultant determined that the Board of Education receives only 63 cents per square foot for maintenance, only one-half to one-third as much as most other large urban school districts in the United States.

Much criticism has also been aimed at the lengthy layers of approvals needed for projects and of the so-called Wicks Law, which requires separate contractors for electric, plumbing, heating, and air conditioning, and a general contractor to build the actual frame for each construction project. A 1987 report by the New York State Division of the Budget concludes that Wicks requirements add from 24 to 30 percent to the cost of public construction.

``Those costs are going into somebody's pockets,'' says Ms. Linden. ``Contractors are on the receiving end of it.''

Also on the receiving end in the past were Board of Education employees. In 1986 and '87, more than two dozen building inspectors were indicted, charged with taking kickbacks from school maintenance contractors.

Currently the Board of Education's Division of School buildings is responsible for construction and rehabilitation, as well as transportation, purchase of supplies, and meal programs for New York schoolchildren.

``The Division of School Buildings management can't be an expert at everything,'' says Robin Willner, director of the nonprofit Educational Priorities Panel, which supports the idea of a new public authority.

The agency, which would be entirely separate from the Board of Education, would be responsible for assessing needs, planning, design, and construction (including increased use of prototypes) of new schools and maintenance for older buildings. The authority would expedite construction, says Assemblyman Mark Alan Siegel, by releasing it from the bureaucracy that now slows down building.

Legislative proposals call for either exemption from the Wicks Law or various compromises that include a construction manager to oversee projects. Nobody is in charge now of overseeing the entire construction project, Mr. Willner points out. As a result, ``Contractors may not be in sync when it comes to doing the work, and they are constantly tripping over each other.''

The streamlining brought by a new agency would knock off ``a few million dollars,'' says Linden.

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