Frank McCourt High School student Austin Garcia (left), with his teacher Daniele Gates. Frank McCourt received funding for tech upgrades.
By Leslie Gersing
It’s like Sim City with real money.
Locals decided to spend more than a million bucks for library renovations, tech equipment, air conditioning and playground renovations at four schools on the Upper West Side.
The results were announced at The Center for West Park on April 25 at Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s Town Hall for District 6, which includes Central Park, Lincoln Square, northern Clinton and the Upper West Side.
The projects were chosen through participatory budgeting — democracy at the grass roots. Starting last year, numerous cultural, educational, security and other improvement projects were researched and debated for their worthiness, subjected to feasibility studies and budgeted. Any district resident or student, 14 and up, was eligible to vote for their top five choices. Eleven made the ballot during voting from March 27 through April 2.
Four projects, at a total cost of $1.27 million, received the most votes, and will be part of the New York City Council Budget. Rosenthal allocated the extra $270,000 from her district budget to cover the overage. They are:
•Library Upgrades for P.S. 166 The project includes work to enlarge the library and creation of a new reading space at P.S. 166, 132 W. 89th St. Cost: $295,000 (1834 votes)
•Air Conditioning for P.S. 9 and Center School Gym Installation of a split system air conditioning system in the gymnasium shared by P.S. 9 and the Center School at 100 W. 84th St. Cost: $400,000 (1398 votes)
•Technology Upgrades at Frank McCourt High School including 11 new Smart Boards and 30 laptop computers with a cart, for use at Frank McCourt H.S. at 145 W. 84th St. Cost: $125,000 (1310 votes)
•Schoolyard Renovation at P.S. 84 Renovation of the playground, converting the asphalt to synthetic turf at P.S. 84 Schoolyard, the Sol Bloom Playground at 32 W. 92nd St. Cost: $450,000 (1304 votes)
During the last day of voting on April 2, volunteer Mark Diller said, “Every council member has a certain amount of money that they’re allowed to spend in the community. And Helen and a few other council members have taken $1 million of that and – capital things, projects and equipment and things – and made it available for the public to propose ideas and then to select among those ideas, which ones will actually get funded.”
At Frank McCourt High School on West 84th Street, 15 juniors and seniors got to experience participatory budgeting up close. Their class took part in all aspects of the process — from the initial development and research of potential projects, to serving on committees that short-listed finalists.
Austin Garcia, an 18-year old senior going to Hunter College next year, said: “It basically just helped me work with people and be more of a better asset in terms of doing group work with people.”
Garcia was pleased voters approved the McCourt High School project for smart boards, computers and other tech gear, which are needed to replace aging and broken equipment. His teacher Daniele Gates was happily surprised about the win, after losing out last year even though the entire student body voted in person. But she doubted there was any special favoritism among the class members. “They were super objective,” she said. “They were all working on different projects, so they weren’t invested in the project they were working on.”
New York City introduced participatory budgeting in 2011. This year, 31 of New York’s 51 city council districts took part during the 2016-2017 cycle, each agreeing to spend at least $1 million in the process. According to the City Council, 28 city council districts took part during the prior cycle, with 67,000 New Yorkers voting to fund $38 million in capital projects.
While many people laud the “small-d” democracy of the process, others are critical of asking voters to decide to spend council districts’ tax dollars on schools, roads, and other public services that should be funded by government agencies. In a recent New York Post op-ed, Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, called New York’s participatory democracy a “sham,” and said, “the exercise points out the city’s failure to spend money wisely, to an absurd degree.”
Rosenthal’s office said 3,111 residents voted for their favorite community initiatives this year, compared to 2,167 last year. While that’s a 43% increase, it’s still a small portion of eligible voters in the district — and comparable, to rising, but continued low levels of participation citywide. Rosenthal urged her Town Hall audience to sign up for her emails at HelenRosenthal.com to stay informed about the process.
Teacher Daniele Gates says more people might vote if ballots were mailed, or more attention were focused on online voting, or ballot locations set up where residents shop, such as grocery stores. But she has no doubt about the value of the class for her students. “They see the impact of participation. I think that a lot of people don’t engage in the process because their voice doesn’t matter and they have first-hand evidence that their vote and their voice matters.”
Photos by Leslie Gersing.