Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Keep public parks public" NY Daily News 10/27/06

Keep public parks public

by Juan Gonzalez in NY Daily News, Friday, October 27, 2006

She may have attended one of Manhattan's elite private schools, but Bronx City Councilwoman Helen Foster wants to know why City Hall is seeking to further privatize public parks with special deals for her alma mater and other prep schools.

Foster, who attended Nightingale-Bramford School on the upper East Side and who now presides over the Council's Parks and Recreation Committee, announced yesterday a special Nov. 3 public hearing to review a proposed Parks Department franchise agreement that has many public school parents furious.

The agreement between the Parks Department and 20 elite Manhattan schools, reached quietly over the past year, would give those schools privileged access to virtually all athletic fields at Randalls Island Park every weekday afternoon for the next 30 years.

"It's another example of this administration creating a two-tier system of parks," Foster said yesterday.

Under the proposed deal, the city would supply money from its capital budget to renovate and increase the number of ballfields on Randalls Island from 30 to 68. The private schools would get near-exclusive use of 80% of those fields and, in turn, pay $2.85 million annually - an average of $142,000 each school per year - to finance the park renovations and part of the maintenance.

The 20 schools, in effect, would be leasing for peanuts the city's biggest complex of public ballfields in a no-bid contract.

A Daily News review of state financial records filed by 18 of the prep schools shows they have combined assets of nearly $900million.

Most of the schools reported substantial annual surpluses in 2004 despite shelling out eye-popping salaries to top administrators.

Take the Brearley School: This K-12 old-money school for girls on E. 83rd St. reported an operating surplus in 2004 of $4.5 million on revenues of $24.3million. More importantly, it claimed assets in cash, stocks and land of slightly more than $100million.

Brearley, however, is a second fiddle to the super-posh Spence School on E.91st St., where actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and the daughters of Mayor Bloomberg, Ronald Perelman, Walter Cronkite and Sigourney Weaver all attended.

Spence was one of the few in the group to report an operating deficit for 2004 - $1.5million. But that's nothing to worry about. During the same year the school's investment portfolio earned a whopping $4.3million, leaving Spence with assets of $130 million.

Both schools leave wealthy new-money powerhouses like the Dalton School in the dust. Dalton, at 89th St. and Park Ave., reported a surplus of $4.9 million in 2004 on revenues of $45 million. The school's assets at year's end were $60.8 million.

Meanwhile, the salaries these schools pay are the envy of educators across the country.

Ellen Stein, Dalton's head of school, received $444,000 in salary, benefits and expenses in 2004, according to the school's report to the state. Henry Moses, the headmaster at Trinity School, on the upper West Side, received $487,000.

At least half the headmasters at the 20 prep schools made more money than the $250,000 given to city Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

No one is begrudging our city's wealthy residents the right to spend $25,000 a year of their own money to give their children the best education possible.

But when public school children in nearby East Harlem and the South Bronx can't find enough park space after school for recreation and team sports, why should the children of privilege be accorded special treatment from our government?

After all, the public is already providing these private schools enormous breaks through exempting them from real estate taxes.

According to an April report from the nonprofit City Project, three of the 20 schools in this proposed Randalls Island deal - Trinity, the Chapin School and the United Nations International School - were among the biggest recipients of private school tax breaks from the city in 2005.

Between them, the three schools received $5.1 million in estate tax exemptions that year.

Parks Department officials, in typical Bloomberg administration fashion, were planning at first to push this deal quietly through the city's Franchise and Concessions Committee and thus avoid any City Council review.

But since they've decided to use money from the capital budget for the project, City Hall officials can't maneuver around the Council, which must approve the capital budget.

Now Foster, herself a product of one of those elite schools, is demanding to know why any private school should be given 30 years of special deals for public parks.

Originally published on October 27, 2006


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