A small elementary school in Brooklyn’s South Park Slope has emerged as a winner in the democratic experiment known as Participatory Budgeting. The school, housed in a 111-year-old building and home to about 400 students, has existed for decades with second-floor bathrooms that are deteriorating and are, in the eyes of many, unfit for use. In the boys bathroom, the tiles are cracked and missing, and in the girls bathroom, there are no doors on the stalls.
“This situation has been going on for many years and my kids can’t wait,” said P.S. 124 Principal Annabelle Martinez, who called the condition of the bathrooms “disrespectful.”
“We have grandparents who volunteer at the school and when they went here, the bathroom was the same way,” she added. “It’s unacceptable.”
Council District 39, represented by Brad Lander, D- Brooklyn, was one of four council districts to take part in participatory budgeting, which gives residents the power to pick projects in their district that deserve city funds. The P.S. 124 bathroom project received 958 votes; 50 more than the second place winning project. Lander will pay for the bathroom improvements with $150,000 in discretionary funds allocated to him.
Three other council members were also involved with participatory budgeting: Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich and Jumaane Williams. All the winning projects are listed on the participatory budgeting NYC website.
To resident Keith Christiansen, the fact that a small school in the district — one that most residents have no connection to — won the most votes, exemplifies how strong the community really is .
“That people came out and united for something that doesn’t affect them, it’s really heartening,” said Christiansen, who spearheaded the P.S. 124 bathroom campaign.
That people came out and united for something that doesn’t affect them, it’s really heartening.
Council Member Lander agrees.
“One thing we saw was a real balance between self-interest and people’s community spirit,” said Lander in an interview. “That’s a great part of democracy, you need both to have it work.”
Christiansen said he hopes that people who got involved in the process and who voted for the bathroom improvements project will continue to be involved in community issues.
“We have a separate yet equal problem in District 39,” he said, referring to how some schools have more money than others. P.S. 124 is a high-poverty school, he said.
But maybe not for long. The participatory budget voters aren’t the only ones who want to see improvements at P.S. 124.
In recent weeks, a group of prospective P.S. 124 parents have banded together to better the school where their children will likely be students in the future. Flyers were handed out near the school, asking people to join a Yahoo group of parents “who are navigating the pre-k process and looking to build a community of active, supportive parents in the South Slope.”
The group, which has a handful of core members and about 40 members in total, has met with Principal Martinez and wants to mobilize to assist with more ambitious and effective fundraising for the school PTA. One of the group’s founders, Dayna Solomon, said the school does not fundraise as effectively or as often as other local schools. Because many of the school’s parents don’t have the time to devote to the school, the parents in the Yahoo group want to get involved.
Solomon said she actually lives across the street from District 39’s border and could not vote in the participatory budget process, but had seen the flyers at PTA meetings. She did post on the popular Park Slope Parents site, urging people in the district to vote for the bathroom project.
Solomon said she is glad the school won the votes to get the bathrooms renovated, and hopes that this raises awareness of the school.
“It makes me feel good knowing that the school is recognized as needing help,” she said, adding that she’s not sure this will signal an upswing.
“I suspect the high vote for this project had a lot to do with the parents feeling empathy towards children who have to use these bathrooms with no doors,'” she said.
Martinez said she welcomes the prospective parents’ ideas and enthusiasm.
“They’re a part of the community as well, and I’m happy they are interested,” she said.
Christiansen, who first proposed building a green laboratory and outdoor teaching space at M.S. 88 in Park Slope, where he is a teacher, said he thinks the community voted for the project because it was so clearly necessary.
“It had to be taken care of,” he said. ” It was unavoidably obvious. Once people saw what was going on, they had to act.”
Martinez and Christiansen both handed out flyers to parents, neighbors, friends and at PTA meetings. Christiansen and other participatory budgeting education committee delegates emailed friends.
The bathrooms weren’t on the list for immediate repairs by the Department of Education or the School Construction Authority because the bathrooms were still functional, said Lander.
“Something being gross or embarrassing or uncomfortable is not enough for repair lists,” he said. “But it is enough to get votes from participatory budgeting.”