Unsafe conditions, backlash and vandalism stall construction of Kingsbridge charter school

Unsafe conditions, vandalism and residential backlash has thrown a major wrench into the construction of the 4,329-square-foot International Leadership Charter Middle School in Kingsbridge.
Photo ET Rodriguez

In Kingsbridge, International Leadership Charter School — which opened a high school location in Riverdale in 2006 — saw the perfect place to expand its educational network with a seven-story middle school building between Irwin and Tibbetts avenues.

But ever since getting the go-ahead to build the 4,329-square-f00t, 300-seat International Leadership Charter Middle School in October, the project has hit a myriad of roadblocks. It has not only drawn ire from locals, including a rally of 100-plus residents on April 17, but also a notice from the city to halt construction due to unsafe working conditions onsite.

The city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) issued a partial stop work order — documenting that excessive flooding at the site caused unsafe working conditions — on March 6.

At the time of the DOB’s inspection, officials said an “inadequately maintained sidewalk” created potential tripping hazards and that the present job site conditions did not conform to the approved plan. Additionally, DOB officials and local residents have noted damage to adjoining properties, including a parking lot owned by the Tibbett Towers co-op.

DOB officials told the Bronx Times that the stop work order is still in effect, until changes are made to the worksite.

International Leadership Charter officials claim other factors, including vandalism at the construction site by opponents of the project, have pushed back the completion timeline by six months. Olga Luz Tirado, a spokesperson for International Leadership Charter, alleges that agitators have broken security cameras installed by the developers and tampered with locks to the site, preventing construction workers access.

The site of the school is above the historic path of the Tibbetts Brook, which frequently experiences high flooding. Photo courtesy Stop The Charter School

“They have delayed for six months as they have been focused on stopping the buildout and having neighbors call 311 every day to stop the work. … Not to mention the vandalism,” said Tirado.

In August 2020, the vacant 306 W. 232nd St. lot — once occupied by a pre-war single-family residential home — was purchased by Panstar Realty LLC for $1.19 million. International Leadership Charter received the OK from charter authorizer SUNY Charter School Institute to pursue a sixth through eighth grade middle school in School District 10, which contains roughly 47,000 K-12 students.

The charter school, which reported enrollment figures of roughly 322 for the current school year, touts a student population where 75% are considered low-income or working class from immigrant backgrounds.

International Leadership’s CEO Dr. Elaine Ruiz Lopez believes that “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) and anti-charter mindsets are attempting to derail development altogether.

It is unfortunate that the expansion of a middle school in Kingsbridge, though fully supported by community parents and families, is sparking such vehement attacks from a small group of detractors,” said Lopez.

Such detractors, like longtime state Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz told the Bronx Times that the charter’s decision to expand into School District 10 provides a variety of headaches, including damage to the adjacent parking lot owned by a nearby co-op to construction and congestions issue for the mostly-residential neighborhood.

Dinowitz says his opinions on charter schools are irrelevant to the qualitative issues he and others raised at the April 17 rally.

“To replace a single family home, with as many as 300 kids every day in a quiet residential neighborhood, it’s going to be a nightmare. It’s going to cause congestion for a district that already had an abundance of schools within 2 miles,” said Dinowitz. “Here’s the kicker, the construction which has already started, you know, they’ve been digging and digging, has already caused significant damage to the adjacent parking lot that belongs to the Tibbett Towers.”

Charter schools have weathered criticism on their admissions process, including findings that some tend to exclude certain high-needs groups such as students with disabilities. And financial transparency and internal discipline measures have also gained scrutiny over the years.

An online petition titled “Stop the International Leadership Charter School Build” has received roughly 700 signatures toward a 1,000-signature goal.

Opponents of the project cite that the charter’s private management fails to comply with New York State Education Department requirements, such as space for a library, educational spaces and evacuation spaces.

The Bronx has been a major expansion ground for the city’s charter school network. New York City charter schools are currently capped at 275, and the most, 94, are in the Bronx.

Additionally, residents have raised environmental issues with the site as well, which sits above the oft-flooded Tibbetts Brook, while also oversaturating a four-mile block that has roughly 15 other educational institutions.

Another hold up in the project, is access to the “damaged” adjacent parking lot that requires written permission from 3130 Irwin Ave. “neighbor” Tibbett Towers Co-Op, which is operated by the New York Teachers Housing Corporation, who are also against the development.

International Charter School — which opened a high school location in Riverdale in 2006
International Leadership Charter School’s Riverdale high school, which opened in 2006. Photo courtesy International Leadership Charter School

City Councilmember Eric Dinowitz, who assumed office in 2021 and seeks a second term for the District 11 seat this year, said that International Leadership Charter officials “failed to meet with community members” and that no one knew about the project until construction started in October.

“Residents of nearby buildings have seen cracks in their walls, the ground is cracking and sinking in the adjacent parking lot, and adjacent homeowners have seen cracks in the concrete in their property,” he said. “As with all big developments, community members should play an integral role and our voices should be heard so concerns about property and how the school will work with the community in the future can be addressed.”

However, International Leadership Charter said that they sufficiently addressed local qualitative concerns at a Jan. 3 Zoom meeting between stakeholders, developers and “neighbors” at a community event hosted by the Assemblymember Dinowitz’s staff.

“It is unfortunate that Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz has resorted to what appears to be political theatre by taking sides with the anti-charter school group of individuals who have launched a ‘Stop the Charter School Build Campaign.’ He has turned his back on his own constituents – hundreds of students and families of color who vote,” said Ruiz Lopez. “We cannot afford to allow ‘nimbyism’ to deny an education to middle school students who live in the Kingsbridge community and deserve this opportunity to receive a quality education.”

International Leadership Charter High School is chartered to serve 380 students from grades 9-12, but recently requested to only serve 301 students in the 2022-23 school year.

The city’s Department of Buildings issued a partial stop work order halting construction on March 6, documenting an excessive amount of water pooling at the site that caused unsafe working conditions. Photo ET Rodriguez

The charter initially aimed to serve 540 students in grades 6-7 and 9-12 by the 2024-25 school year.

As it awaits an eventual middle school building, International Leadership Charter is accommodating middle school populations at its original Riverdale location. This year, the school integrated its first sixth-grade class to its high school campus.

That class will move to a newly formed seventh grade next year, with new sixth-graders coming behind them.

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes