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School Community and Local Politicians Criticize Plans to Relocate High School

January 17, 2010

PROTEST

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS SECONDARY SCHOOL STUDENTS WANT THEIR SCHOOL TO STAY EXACTLY WHERE IT IS (PHOTO: R. Thomas)

By REBECCA THOMAS

Passions ran high on Thursday night at a University Heights Secondary School parents meeting where over 650 parents, teachers and students met with representatives of the Department of Education and a senior vice president of Bronx Community College, Mary Coleman, to discuss the possible relocation of the school from its current site on the college’s campus. The proposed move would take place before the beginning of the next school year.

In December, the college asked the DOE to move the school so that it could use the Nichols Hall building for its own classes. The BCC student population has reached a historic high of almost 11,000 students this semester – 4000 more than this time last year – Coleman said at Thursday’s three-hour meeting, and it simply needs all the space it has.

But students, teachers and parents are angry about the move, which they say will disrupt the school’s academic success. They are also unhappy that they found out about the request only after it had been made, and worry about where the school might go.

Before the meeting, students marched across the campus from their school to the Gould Memorial library carrying hand-written signs and chanting. Later, speakers reiterated their belief that the location of the safe, accessible site on the campus encourages the students to do well academically and aspire to higher education. As many as 90 percent of University Heights students end up going to the BCC and other CUNY colleges, according to Deborah Harris, a former principal of the school.

Many also argued that since the school moved to the building in 1992, it has invested too much in the facilities to leave now. After moving in, the school lobbied the DOE and local politicians for the funds to carry out the renovations on the building that turned it into a fully functioning school. The funds provided, among other things, a new auditorium, a library, furnished labs, a music room and a tailored daycare center used by the children of the teenage mothers who complete their education at the school.

Coleman was sympathetic to the school’s arguments, pointing out that the college serves the same constituency as the school itself – 71 percent of BCC’s students are from the Bronx – but must ensure that it provides tuition-paying students with the facilities they require.

“We are the same people and the same family,” she said. “There is nothing that hurts worse that breaking up a family. This college has every intention of following University Heights wherever it will go. But my highest order of responsibility is to the mission, the faculty and staff and students of BCC.”

University Heights Secondary School

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS SECONDARY SCHOOL HAS BEEN LOCATED ON BCC'S CAMPUS SINCE 1987, AND IN THIS PARTICULAR BUILDING SINCE 1992 (PHOTO: R. Thomas)

Over the past week, the school has petitioned elected representatives including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Senator Pedro Espada Jr., Senator Jose Serrano, Assemblyman Nelson Castro and Councilman Fernando Cabrera for support to stay on the site. Groups of students hand-delivered 450 letters from members of the school to the offices of these officials.

“I have never seen so many parents and students fired up about a school,” Cabrera said at the meeting. “We complain that our parents don’t get involved. Here the parents get involved, the students get rated an A. Why is it that we have only one high school in our area and we have to move this one? I want this message to go all the way to the administration: This councilman is not happy about this.”

He echoed the school administration’s displeasure with the process by which the decision was being made, “It troubles me because elected officials were not informed, because parents had to find out through their children what was going on.”

Castro also voiced his support. “This is the only high school in my district. This is an important fight. I am with everybody who is willing to work or fight to keep the school here.”

At the end of the meeting, BCC and DOE representatives and the principal of the school, Hazel Joseph Roseboro, committed themselves to an open discussion about what will happen next. Cabrera vowed to organize a meeting with the Deputy Mayor for Education about options to prevent the relocation.

It is still unclear where the school will go if it moves. The DOE has said previously that the school would be housed in a DOE building in the area, an option which is unpopular with the school community because it fears that all the buildings in the area are already taken. 

“Moving this 23-year old school to an already overcrowded high-school will make it difficult for our students and our school to integrate its story,” said Carmen Seguinot, the PTA President. “We as parents demand that CUNY and the Department of Education find a way to rescue this school.”

Related article: BCC to Expel University Heights Secondary School

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Economy, Development, and Local Business

January 8, 2010

FOOT PANTRY

LONG LINES WERE COMMON OUTSIDE LOCAL FOOD PANTRIES IN 2009 (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

With a worsening economy and rising employment, local food pantries, including the one at Gospel Tabernacle Church on West Tremont Avenue, experienced increased demand in 2009, as many local residents struggled to make ends meet.

Davidson Community Center, working with Mount Hope Housing Company and others, made headway in their efforts to create a Business Improvement District, or BID, on Burnside Avenue. Under the plan, business owners would pay a small tax and receive maintenance (such as graffiti removal), security, and marketing services in return. Supporters say it will revitalize the shopping district, benefiting merchants and residents alike. Angel Caballero, Davidson’s executive director, hopes the BID will be in place by the end of 2010.

A small farmer’s market – the only one in the local area – opened up shop in July on the western edge of Echo Park, along Tremont Avenue. The market, open Wednesdays, shut down for the season in November. It will be back next summer.

The iconic, but troubled, Loew’s Paradise Theater reopened on Oct. 24 for concerts and events, following a two-year closure. About 90 mostly part-time jobs were created. The 80-year-old theater, located on the Grand Concourse just south of Fordham Road, has been beset by a string of closings in recent times, as well as rumors of financial impropriety. Now under new management, there’s guarded hope for a brighter future for one of the Bronx’s true gems.

St. Barnabas Hospital came under pressure from local residents and community leaders in 2009, for their continued failure to build on (or at least clean-up) an empty lot they own at 2050 Grand Concourse, at East Burnside Avenue. Plans there for a 10-story outpatient facility were put on hold in 2008, and since then there’s been no obvious progress. According to staff, St. Barnabas was unable to lay its hands on the necessary funds, following the economic downturn.

In better news, Morris Heights Health Center’s Harrison Circle Project, on West Burnside Avenue, is edging closer to completion. The building, a joint project with Mount Hope Housing Company, will house a health center and housing for seniors.

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Latest on Three New Community Centers

January 8, 2010

MOUNT HOPE'S NEW COMMUNITY CENTER

MOUNT HOPE HOUSING COMPANY HAS BEEN UNABLE TO OPEN ITS NEW COMMUNITY CENTER, BECAUSE PART OF THE BUILDING ENCROACHES ON CITY PROPERTY (PHOTO: J. FERGUSSON)

By JAMES FERGUSSON

In 2009, there was frustration for Mount Hope Housing Company.

Their new community center on Townsend Avenue at 175th Street still isn’t open – at least officially.  While some staff have moved in, the programming (GED classes, etc) can’t start until the building has received its permanent certificate of occupancy from the city’s Buildings Department.

Why the hold-up?  Part of the structure encroaches onto city property by 3/8 of an inch, the width of a fingernail, new CEO Fritz Jean explained in an interview.  Jean has his plate full.  On top of getting the new center open, he has to turn the organization’s dire financial situation around, and ensure Mount Hope’s 30-plus apartment buildings receive the care and attention they need. Jean said Mount Hope had taken its “eyes off” the buildings in recent years and focused on new development – a mistake, he said.

The Hebrew Institute on University Avenue (just north of West Tremont Avenue) has a new name: the West Bronx Clubhouse. It will open in the spring, possibly as early as March, according to Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club, the organization behind it.  The $12 million facility will give local children, ages 6 to 18, somewhere to go after school. The building has been vacant for 30 years. In the past, attempts to renovate it have stalled.

In more good news, the Settlement Housing Fund broke ground on a pre-K – 12th grade public school, community center, and indoor swimming pool, on Jerome Avenue at 172nd Street.  The project is expected to be completed in 2012.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Fernando Cabrera Unseats Maria Baez

January 7, 2010

FERNANDO CABRERA

NEW COUNCIL MEMBER FERNANDO CABRERA AT HIS INAUGURATION CEREMONY ON JAN. 6. WITH CABRERA IS HIS WIFE, ELVIA (L), AND CIVIL COURT JUDGE ELIZABETH TAYLOR (PHOTO: A. TALWAR)

By ALEX KRATZ

Less than 18 months ago, Fernando Cabrera was a college professor living in Westchester County who spent his spare time leading the Morris Avenue church he founded two decades ago.

On Jan. 1 he became a New York City councilman.

It’s been a long journey in a short period of time for Cabrera who defeated incumbent Maria Baez by just 70 votes in the September Democratic primary after emerging from a crowded field of challengers. Cabrera easily cruised to victory in the November general election and become the de facto Council member in the district as Baez has not shown up for work (and is reported to be seriously ill) since September.

Cabrera’s victory was a clear rejection of Baez’s leadership, as incumbents are notoriously difficult to defeat in local elections.

Over the past few years, she had come under fire for a series of controversies, including the fact that she held the worst attendance record of any City Council member. Last fall, she supported Mayor Bloomberg’s unpopular push to extend term limits for the city’s elected officials from two terms to three. Twice before, the public had voted to uphold the two-term limit.

By the time the Council had extended term limits and Baez had announced her re-election bid, Cabrera had already announced his intention to run. He stayed the course even as the crowd of challengers swelled to more than a half dozen.

In the late spring, Cabrera received two critical endorsements – from the Bronx County Democratic Committee and the Working Families Party – that put him in front of the pack of challengers. Soon, nearly every major union had jumped on board the Cabrera bandwagon.

Everyone except Cabrera and Yudelka Tapia, a city auditor and community activist, dropped out of the race to take on Baez in the primary.

All summer, Cabrera fended off attacks from his rivals who claimed he was a Republican (true, he voted in the 2008 Republican primary, but switched parties soon after) and that he lived in Westchester County (true, until he moved into a Sedgwick Avenue condo in August of 2008).

But it was also true that Cabrera had the devoted and relentless backing of his congregation at New Life Outreach International Church on Morris Avenue. The young, relentless and tech-savvy members of New Life were the backbone of his campaign and developed into a political force.

(Also, though he fell short and withdrew from the campaign before petitions were due, Yorman Nunez, a 20-year-old community organizer, built a strong campaign team of young volunteers who are now in the process of creating their own political action committee.)

At the end of a tense primary election night, Cabrera had a slim 90-vote lead that held up after an official recount lasting two weeks. Baez vowed to keep fighting, but hasn’t been heard from or seen since.

In December, Cabrera stepped into the void left by Baez’s absence, attending closed-door negotiation sessions on the fate of the Kingsbridge Armory on West Kingsbridge road. Not yet officially in office, he didn’t get to vote along with his colleagues to defeat the project, but by all accounts his firm stance mattered. (The City Council rejected the proposal because the developer, Related Companies, who wanted to build a mall, wouldn’t commit to making retailers pay employees a “living wage” – $10 with benefits, or $11.50 an hour without.) 

Cabrera says his priority in his first year is to pass living wage legislation so that developers seeking city subsidies will be required to incorporate higher wages into their plans.

Article first appeared in the Norwood News.

Ed. note: Cabrera has opened a district office on the second floor of 107 E. Burnside Ave., near Morris Avenue.  Reach the office at (347) 590-2874.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Rookie Espada Rockets to Senate Leadership

January 7, 2010

PEDRO ESPADA

PEDRO ESPADA HAS BECOME ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL POLITICIANS IN THE STATE (FILE PHOTO)

By ALEX KRATZ

Say what you will about Pedro Espada, Jr. — and don’t worry, it’s already been said — but there’s one thing everyone can probably agree on: the former boxer is a survivor who doesn’t shy away from a fight.

In January 2009, Espada, who previously was a senator in the south Bronx, marched into office as the new state senator in the 33rd District (which includes Mount Hope, University Heights, and South Fordham) already dogged by controversy over his residency (despite buying a Bedford Park co-op just before the election, news organizations frequently found him at his house in Mamaroneck) and lingering legal issues relating to how he had financed past campaigns.

By the end of spring, he had upset local housing activists by cozying up to landlord lobbyists and stalling long-delayed pro-tenant legislation. The Senate leadership had denied his request to give nearly $2 million in state grants to two nonprofit organizations only recently created by two employees of his health clinic empire.

By the end of July, Espada became a political pariah after single-handedly holding up state business in Albany for more than a month. Oh, and he still didn’t have a district office or a local phone number that his constituents could call.

Despite all of that, Espada will end the year as the Senate’s majority leader, the state’s highest ranking Hispanic elected official and an apparent shoo-in for re-election in 2010. (If there are any challengers, they haven’t come forward yet.)

Last fall, Democrats wrested control of the Senate away from Republicans for the first time in more than 40 years. But the slim 32 to 30 majority was tenuous at best and Espada exploited it for all it was worth.

Before even taking his seat in Albany, Espada traded his support for Senate Democratic leader Malcolm Smith for a plum appointment as chair of the Housing Committee. He used that position to curry favor with landlord groups and, at the same time, avoided addressing many tenant protection bills that have long been favored by Democrats.

He then spent much of the spring plotting with Republicans to overthrow Smith. In June, with several crucial bills awaiting passage, Republicans, along with Democrats Espada and Hiram Monserrate (Queens), voted to return leadership to the GOP.

Smith and the other Democrats then shut down the Senate, first by turning off the lights and locking the doors and then by not showing up for work. Monserrate quickly returned to the Democrats, but Espada held out until Smith finally agreed to give him the title of Majority Leader, as well as money for his new district office in the swank Fordham Place building.

Espada said he did all this in order to pass certain reforms that, in essence, do balance the power somewhat between the majority and minority parties. But there’s no reason why those reforms couldn’t have been passed through debate. And they came at the cost of several important bills that deserved passage, critics say. 

Espada has spent the fall reconstructing his image as a champion of the poor and disadvantaged, taking on issues of immigrant rights, gay marriage and gun violence. He’s been holding Thanksgiving dinners and supporting local business leaders.

Clearly under pressure, he also told about 1,400 people at a Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition gathering that he would support efforts to repeal vacancy de-control. 

What Espada accomplished politically in 2009 was nothing less than a feat of opportunistic political brilliance. Whether it will be good for the community, city or state remains to be seen. 

Article first appeared in the Norwood News.

YEAR IN REVIEW: MS 399 To Close; New Home For PS 204

January 7, 2010

By JAMES FERGUSSON

In February, 150 students, teachers, and parents from MS 399, a school on 184th Street near Creston Avenue, held a rally to protest the Department of Education’s decision to close it, following sub-par test scores.

Despite the uproar, the DOE has moved ahead with the phase-out. In September, two new schools – Creston Academy and East Fordham Academy for the Arts – moved into the building.  MS 399 has dropped a grade and will close in June 2011. 

The DOE is close to finalizing plans for PS/IS 338, a beautiful new school building at 1780 Macombs Road (on the corner of West Tremont Avenue).  PS 204, an elementary school on West 174th Street, is slated to move into the facility in September. Their current building, a former synagogue, is in a bad state of repair, and without a gym, a playground, a library, and other amenities.

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