Sunday, March 21, 2010

Peninsula Preparatory Academy moved to land owned by Malcolm Smith contributor, Benjamin Companies

I'm taking a brief break from posting on the UFT election to get this one from Leonie up - this is my own neck of the woods. The charter school outrages continue:

Meredith and an investigative team at Daily News untangle the tangled web that is the Peninsula Prep charter school story.

Still some unanswered questions. One: what political deal was behind the city’s promise to donate $31 million to build a facility for this charter school, considering its shaky history?

Two: if private developers realize that providing schools give them an advantage in selling properties, why doesn’t the city recognize the economic value of building more public schools to sustain and strengthen the city’s economic future?

Peninsula Preparatory Academy moved to land owned by Malcolm Smith contributor, Benjamin Companies

BY Meredith Kolodner, Barbara Ross and Greg B. Smith

Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School in Averne By The Sea,   Far Rockaway.

Gabel for News

Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School in Averne By The Sea, Far Rockaway.

The phalanx of drab trailers ringed by a chain-link fence in a desolate corner of Queens looks more like a prison than a charter school.

The cramped Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School has no science lab, no gymnasium, no playground and no on-site kitchen. Hot meals are trucked in from 3 miles away, and the school's 300 students dodge cars just to reach the front door.

Only two years ago, the charter school founded by Senate President Malcolm Smith was housed inside a spacious public school 3 miles away in Far Rockaway.

The official reason for the relocation was "increased enrollment" - but the Daily News has learned Peninsula Preparatory Academy was moved to land owned and under development by one of Smith's top campaign donors.

Queens developer Benjamin Companies is in a partnership building homes near the school - and started using Peninsula as a selling point to hawk the seaside residences.

While the move may benefit the developer, it certainly didn't help students wedged inside the too-small trailers - with no end in sight.

"We should really have the building that was promised to us," Principal Ericka Wala said last week. "That's why they moved here."

Its "gym" is a room inside a trailer with bars on the windows; the space doubles as an auditorium and cafeteria.

Yet it's barely big enough to serve even a single purpose. At a recent schoolwide parent meeting, the 150 grownups who showed up couldn't fit inside.

One linoleum floor is split down the middle, and the sidewalk outside the entrance is so narrow, students must press against the fence to avoid cars on the busy road.

"It's not good for the children," said Modupe Lawal, the mother of 6-year-old first-grader Tolulope. "When you're in kindergarten, first grade, you need that experience. You need to go outside."

Officials at Peninsula - once housed comfortably inside Middle School 53 - say they moved "due to increased enrollment." Wala said there were "issues" about placing elementary school students inside a building with middle-schoolers.

In a statement, the Department of Education said the school "opted to move out of the building and asked for temporary space," which was donated by the Benjamin Companies partnership. The department said questions "regarding the rationale for the move are best directed to the school itself."

Peninsula officials did not answer a long list of written questions from the Daily News. But The News found there may be another reason for the move.

Benjamin Companies' employees and several affiliates have contributed $144,500 to Smith's campaign and political action committee, Build New York PAC, since 2002, records show.

The Benjamin Companies is a major builder of affordable housing projects operated by Smith's former boss and political mentor, the Rev. Floyd Flake.

And the relationship doesn't end there. A member of Peninsula's board in 2004 and 2005 is a real estate broker whose clients include the Benjamin Companies' partnership developing the Far Rockaway site.

The FBI has seized documents in an ongoing probe of nonprofits tied to Flake, Smith and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, who was also a Peninsula board member through 2008. Peninsula is a nonprofit, though it's not clear if the school is part of the probe.

Smith founded Peninsula in 2004 and served on its board through 2006, when he claims he cut ties with the school after becoming Senate president.

Yet the DOE recently noted "the school continues to publicize" its links to Smith and Meeks, and this year Smith sponsored a $100,000 legislative "member item" for Peninsula.

Smith said Friday he had no role in selecting the trailer site and that the contributions played no role in that selection.

"They're like any other contributions to the senator or his PAC from people who value his leadership and vision for the state," said Smith's spokesman, Austin Shafran.

In October 2004, Smith joined Flake, a Meek staffer, schools Chancellor Joel Klein and other officials to proudly tout the opening of Peninsula.

The charter school had just opened in MS 53 with plenty of space, a gym, a cafeteria, a playground and a new science lab officials said was built for Peninsula.

Cost to taxpayers: $500,000.

By September 2008, Peninsula and its 300 grammar-school students were transplanted into two trailers crammed into a tiny vacant lot and hemmed in by a chain-link fence.

The trailers sit amid a large construction site with mounds of dirt all around, across the street from where the new Peninsula Charter School is supposed to be built.

A January 2009 Department of Education report found "sufficient classroom and office space" but noted students studying at a large table that blocked the rear exit of one trailer.

While 90% of Peninsula's students showed "proficiency" in math and 65% in English last year, the school repeatedly received poor grades on its

DOE "report cards" - an "F" in 2007 and a "C" in 2008 and 2009, putting it in the bottom 1% of elementary schools in New York City.

Coralanne Hunte, whose 9-year-old son, Chandler, is in fourth grade, fondly recalled when the school was in MS 53.

"They had the opportunity to share the gym; they had an outside area that was really large. [Now] they're missing out on that," she said. "It wasn't clear to me why they left MS 53."

There is no target date for the new school to open.

The agreement with the city Department of Education stipulates that the city pay 74% of the expected cost of building the school - up to $31 million - and the developer pays 22%, with a grant from the nonprofit Charter School Institute for the difference.

The Benjamin partnership bought the land from the city for a reduced amount under an urban renewal program, according to Gerard Romski, project manager.

The city could not provide the purchase amount.

Though sources say the new school likely will not open before 2014, it appears Peninsula has already spent $559,211 in taxpayer money for "construction in progress."

Romski says the building is in the "design phase." Nevertheless, the "new school" is a top selling point in advertisements for housing at what the developer calls Arverne by the Sea.

So far, about 850 of an expected 2,300 units have been built and all have been sold, Romski said.

Victory Schools, a for-profit company, manages the school for a fee of 18% of what the school brings in per student from taxpayers.

Last year, that amounted to $866,485. Victory's founder, Steven Klinsky, donated $12,000 to Smith in 2006-2007.

An April 2008 DOE review found "a continued and growing negative net balance" that "poses a threat to school's stability."

Peninsula officials say in reports filed with the DOE that the school is solvent.

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