Public advocacy groups call on DOE to test leased school sites

Two public advocacy groups demanded that the city immediately test all 31 school sites that it leases in the wake of late notification of parents in the P.S. 51 toxic controversy.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and New York Communities for Change sent a letter to schools chancellor Dennis Walcott on Tuesday, August 31 calling on the Department of Education to conduct environmental testing at the 31 school buildings, including 8 in the borough, that are leased by the city before the start of the new school year.

The demand came on the heals of an outcry after parents were notified only in late July and early August that the building housing P.S. 51 at 3200 Jerome Avenue contained high levels of the carcinogen trichloroethylene.

At a town hall meeting with Walcott at Bronx High School of Science on Thursday, August 18, parents were told that tests conducted in the spring showed that the school had high levels of TCE.

“We are relocating the school to St. Martin of Tours School at 695 East 182nd Street,” Walcott said. “DOE is expediting the testing of the 31 other school leases that have not had a prior environmental audit.”

Schools that are leased by the DOE, as opposed to those buildings owned by the city, only undergo environmental audits under current guidelines when their multi-year leases are up for renewal, said NYLPI lawyer Dawn Philip.

Since the DOE initiated school leasing reform, 67 environmental audits were completed prior to review of the P.S. 51 lease, Walcott stated. The P.S. 51 lease at 3200 Jerome Avenue was the first lease that the city has walked away from, Walcott said.

The city leases buildings for schools including P.S. 137 at 2225 Webster Avenue, I.S. 229 at 275 Harlem River Park Bridge, South Bronx Academy at 941 Rev. James Polite Avenue, Bronx Dance School at 3617 Bainbridge Avenue, P.S. 257 at 2120 Quarry Road, High School of American Studies at 2925 Goulden Avenue, New Beginning Program at 991 Longwood Avenue, and the P.S. 33 annex at 2392-98 Jerome Avenue.

“It would be great if the DOE would issue a statement in response to our letter instead of giving the same response they have given in the past few weeks,” Phillip said.

NYPLI environmental consultants believed that the DOE could have tested the air quality at all 31 leased sites around the city before the start of school on Thursday, September 8, Phillip stated.

“We believe that based on our expertise and the consultants that we rely on, the testing could be done by the first day of school,” Phillip said. “Cost shouldn’t be an issue here.”

The DOE agreed to expedite testing, but tip-toed around the request that all leased school sites be tested by the start of the new school year.