Questions Swirl Around Peninsula Preparatory Academy
An investigation by the New York Daily News I-Team has sparked more questions about the connection among the Peninsula Preparatory Academy, State Senator Malcolm Smith and the developers of Arverne By The Sea, the developers that have provided a free home for the school and have pledged millions of dollars for the school, which was founded by Smith.
Two years ago, the publically-funded charter school moved from Intermediate School 53 in Far Rockaway to a group of double-wide trailers on Beach 67 Street, smack dab in the middle of the Arverne By The Sea (ABTS) development.
The Daily News writers questioned PPA officials on why the school would move from a place where it had a cafeteria, school yard, gymnasium and state-of-the art science lab to a site that had none of the above and was surrounded by streets and a chain-link fence.
“The phalanx of drab trailers ringed by chain-link fence in a desolate corner of Queens looks more like a prison than a charter school,” the I-Team wrote. “The cramped [school] has no science lab, no gymnasium, no playground and no on site kitchen. Hot meals are trucked in from three miles away, and the school’s 300 students have to dodge cars just to reach the front door.”
The paper argues that the school was moved to the ABTS complex for political and financial reasons.
While the official reason provided by the school was that “increased enrollment” forced the move, the Daily News reporters say that the move was a political favor to Benjamin-Beechwood, the ABTS developers who are also the favored developers of the Reverend Floyd Flake, a former Congressman for whom Smith worked for many years.
“Queens developer Benjamin Companies is in a partnership building homes near the school – and started using [PPA] as a selling point to hawk the seaside residences,” the News story says.
The story adds that Benjamin Companies’ employees and affiliates have contributed $144,500 to Smith’s campaigns and political action committee, Build New York PAC.
And, the paper says, the relationship does not end there. A member of the school’s board in 2004, the story says, is a real estate broker whose clients include the ABTS developers.
Although Department of Education sources say the agreement has not been finalized, a 2007 Memorandum of Understanding between the city agency and the developers of Arverne By The Sea point to the fact that the two intend to split the cost of a new school building to house the Peninsula Preparatory Academy, a charter school founded and funded by State Senator Malcolm Smith.
According to the agreement, Benjamin Beechwood, the ABTS developers, would contribute 22 percent of the costs, while the city would kick in 74 percent. The other four percent would come from the charter school itself, through government funding provided by Smith.
The proposed school would be built on a “five acre site within the project known as Arverne By The Sea,” the MOU says, adding that the facility would be “for lease to the Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School.”
Despite the wording on the MOU, Gerard Romski, Arverne By The Sea’s CEO and project director, says that it is not a certainty that Smith’s charter school will eventually end up in the school building it will construct as part of its deal with the city.
“PPA is not set as the operator of the school,” Romski said this week. “They rent the land they are presently using for $1 a year, but we did not give them the trailers they use [as school buildings] and I don’t know where they came from.”
He added that he is not sure what form the school will take.
On Tuesday this week, Romski told The Wave that the Daily News story had no basis in fact.
“Why let the facts get in the way of a good story,” Romski said. “There are no facts to back up the story that the News printed last weekend.”
“We never sought out PPA,” Romski added. “They needed to find a place and they came to us. We needed a charter partner and took them in.”
He argued that Smith had nothing to do with the school’s move to ABTS and was angered at the News’ contention that the school was moved to ABTS to help the developers sell homes.
“They told us that they had to move from MS 53 because of the way the school was set up, that they weren’t comfortable having young kids mixed with middle-school kids. We just made the space available to them,” Romski said. “What is the property worth now? Nothing, it’s good only for seagulls and Canadian geese. It won’t be worth anything until we develop it.”
“I take offense to the News story,” he concluded. “We agreed to finance the construction of a new school, and the memorandum of understanding with the DOE is that we will do so, although our partner might well not be PPA, but some other charter.”
The MOU, however, specifically names PPA as the school that will take over the new building.
And, while Smith says he has no present connection with the charter school, he apparently had lots to do with its founding.
In March of 2004, Smith stood in front of Far Rockaway High School after a tour of local schools.
“I’m going to actually put together my own school to make sure that the kids out here are going to get a good education,” Smith said. “We’ve got to do something for these kids because many of Rockaway’s schools are an embarrassment.”
Recently, when reporters questioned his connection to the school in light of the fact that he earmarked $100,000 in public funds for the school and voted to double the number of charters in New York State, a spokesperson said that Smith divested himself of any connection to the school in 2004, when he became the Senate’s Majority Leader.
Smith told the News that the school moved because the DOE refused to allow them to expand at MS 53, something the DOE denies.
“The school never asked for more space,” a DOE spokesperson told The Wave.
The Department of Education issued a statement on Monday, saying, “The school’s board made the decision to move, and has not requested a move since. We will continue to engage with the leadership and the parents, and try as best we can to accommodate the needs and concerns being expressed.”
While there is no date set for the new school, the paper says that more than $500,000 in public funds have been spent on the construction project.
Romski said, however, that only “a few hundred thousand dollars” had been spent on the design phase of the project, adding that the school would be on Beach 67 Street near the new Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
He did not expect the building to be ready before 2014 or 2015.