Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and City Councilman Eric Gioia Demand High Standards and Accountability in the Debate Over Toxic Schools Policy

September 26, 2007
A recent op-ed was a disingenuous public relations ploy to protect Mayoral power and avoid accountability at the expense of the health of New York City’s school children and teachers. At issue is the City’s claim that their plans to lease contaminated factories and turn them into schools need not be disclosed to the public, voted upon by the City Council or go through the state’s standard environmental review process. Walcott admits that there is a problem but still suggests that this administration uses the strictest standards to review leased sites.

The ironic timing of that claim is not lost on us: Just last week an investigative news report uncovered knowledge that a severely contaminated factory in Long Island City- within the districts we represent – had been leased by the Department of Education (DOE) and School Construction Authority (SCA) and turned into a school in 2003. The State and City are at odds over what to do about an increase in pollution under the school.

As representatives of the community, the City never told us that this school site was contaminated – nor were students, parents or teachers informed. When the story broke, the City released an air quality report meant to assure parents that the school is safe, but an independent environmental consultant said the testing used irresponsibly high thresholds incapable of detecting much lower levels of toxicity than could pose a risk to children. All of this raises serious questions about the city’s ability to ensure the safety of toxic school site occupants; the sites require perpetual monitoring and maintenance to contain potential exposure pathways. What is needed immediately is more oversight of the City’s leasing process.

The bill was a response to concerns voiced by advocates including Environmental Defense, the Healthy Schools Network, and NY Lawyers for the Public Interest, Sierra Club and WE ACT for Environmental Justice and community members. Jeannie Alvarado, whose son is a freshman at the High School for Information Technology in Long Island City, is concerned for his safety. “I am more than just concerned. My rights were violated. They knew that the school was built on a toxic site but did not tell us. Parents should be informed and then have the right to choose whether or not to send their children to these schools, “said Alvarado.

By improving oversight standards and by making the New York City Department of Education accountable to the public from the beginning of the process rather than when it is too late the bill will help avoid law suits and lessen mistrust toward DOE. We hold that the city’s proposal does not go far enough in protecting children from hidden environmental pollutants that could damage their health. No one is suggesting that the current protocol used by the School Construction Authority on leased properties is all bad. Rather we are making it absolute that the public is involved in the review process. A.8838 (Nolan) sets forth a clear plan to balance the needs of parents and the city when leasing property. The bill passed the Assembly by a vote of 150 to 0 during the legislative session.

As a check and balance on Mayoral control communities must be given notice of plans to lease toxic sites for schools and the Council must be given the opportunity to vote on the appropriateness of a site. Leased facilities on toxic properties must go through the most stringent environmental review and it is disturbing that Mr. Walcott, as the Mayor’s representative, would advocate for less. Everyone’s goal is to avoid putting our children’s health in jeopardy by leasing toxic buildings for use as schools.