There aren’t many plans for how Amazon HQ2 families will integrate into New York’s notoriously challenging school system if they aren’t already locals.
Though little is known about Amazon’s new headquarters in Long Island City, speculation is already rampant about how the company’s arrival (or is it an expansion?) will affect housing, employment, and dating in New York. To the many unanswered questions raised by the arrival of up to 25,000 affluent techies, we might add one more: where will their kids go to school?
Perhaps more than in any other city, families in New York City face a difficult challenge in figuring out where to send their kids to school. Admission to coveted public and private schools is notoriously selective, and overcrowding in the boroughs makes finding a satisfactory school for one’s child feel like trying to find a classic-six rent-stabilized apartment. In Queens, where HQ2 will land in a few short years, the problem of school capacity is especially acute: the borough’s high schools are at 117 percent capacity overall, and the only elementary school in Long Island City, PS 78, is presently at 135 percent capacity.
But it has been widely supposed that one reason for New York’s “victory” in the HQ2 “competition” is that the city already has a tech-trained workforce a great deal larger than cities like Dallas or Atlanta. This abundance of homegrown talent is a key feature in the city’s projections for HQ2: Because so many of the 25,000 future Amazon workers already live here, officials say, the company’s impact will not be as seismic as it might have been in another city.
And yet the city and Amazon have been remarkably nonchalant about the issue. The public MOU signed by both parties calls on Amazon to pick up the tab for just one middle school in Long Island City. What’s more, the city Department of Education was already planning to build that school to accommodate growth in the up-and-coming neighborhood; plans had to be adapted because Amazon will be building its headquarters on the site previously designated for the school.
This nonchalance, though it reveals little about the impact HQ2 will have, says a great deal about what kind of effect the city expects it to have. The city’s plans for dealing with the impact of Amazon on the school system is based on the assumption that the company’s impact will be much smaller than many others believe. Residents and activists who live close to the future headquarters site worry that their already strained schools will buckle altogether when Amazon lands.
Officials also emphasized that the rollout of the headquarters will take place over the course of a decade, and that they expect Amazon’s employees will be spread out around the city—not clustered in Long Island City and along the number 7 subway line, as locals have feared. What’s more, the HQ2 site will replace 5,000 new units of housing the city had been planning to build in Long Island City, which officials say means Long Island City’s population will grow less over the next five years than it was going to before.
“Amazon’s headquarters will actually reduce the anticipated stress on LIC’s schools since many sites that were under consideration for residential rezoning will now be commercial,” said Jane Meyer, a spokesperson for City Hall.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education also pointed out that the department’s capital plan for the last five years is its largest ever, and will result in more than 83,000 new school seats being added in schools across the five boroughs. Only four new schools (serving just under 3000 students) will be in Long Island City—the Amazon-funded middle school, two new elementary schools, and a newly sited high school.
The small-scale schools’ plan for Long Island City, then, rests on an assumption that Amazon’s arrival in the city will be gradual and widely diffused. Politicians and residents in Queens, though, aren’t buying it.
Deborah Alexander, who is co-president of the Community Education Council for Long Island City’s school district, said the district was facing an “infrastructure desert” even before the Amazon deal, with high-rises going up unchecked but no new schools being built.
After the CEC “screamed into the void” for years, Alexander said, the city agreed to build two new elementary schools—and the middle school Amazon will now pay for. “But that was just overflow—that’s for the kids that are already here,” she adds. “They were already behind the 8 ball.”
Even if most of Amazon’s new employees live outside of Long Island City, Alexander said, the neighborhood is already at a breaking point.
“You can’t bank on them living elsewhere,” she said, “given the history and the lack of planning. If Amazon didn’t come, Long Island City would still be in trouble. Whatever fraction of them come, they still need places for their kids to go to school, and I don’t think the city is properly planning for that.”
Long Island City was the fastest-growing neighborhood in the country over the past five years. The city announced earlier this year that it plans to add more than 18,000 school seats across Queens in order to eliminate oversized classrooms and auxiliary trailers, but even before the Amazon deal, Alexander says, the neighborhood was projected to have a deficit of more than two thousand school seats.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City and has vehemently opposed the Amazon deal, agreed.
“The MOUs are entirely insufficient,” he told CityLab in a statement. When asked about the city’s projections for a more diffuse impact on the school system, he said, “This deal now only includes one middle school. So it was already planned and we actually lost a school in the process. It’s entirely unclear how we would sustain the influx of new residents.” Van Bramer said the city’s investments in Queens schools were “just the beginning of what is needed” to keep up with the borough’s growing need.
And local organizations like the immigrant advocacy group, Make the Road New York, have been pushing the city to add school seats in the area, too. In 2015, it released a report stating that overcrowding disproportionately affected Long Island City and other New York City school districts with large immigrant populations. Make the Road New York has been involved in protests against the Amazon deal since it was announced last month.
The community’s skepticism of the Amazon deal may have been fanned by the company’s penchant for making local governments grovel at its feet—dozens of cities and states offered the company billions in tax breaks during the “competition,” and one Arizona city even sent Amazon a 21-foot ceremonial cactus. In the past, powerful New York institutions have been able to bend the school system to their needs: After years of debate, Columbia University opened a private school in Morningside Heights, a few blocks from the university’s main campus on the edge of Harlem. The children of its faculty members and employees receive discounted admission (and half the places are reserved for non-affiliated neighborhood families selected by lottery). Columbia’s reasoning: The university needed to be able to attract the faculty it wanted, and that meant the ability to offer transplants’ children space in a high-quality school, despite the fact that New York and its surrounding area are abundant with people with high-quality doctoral degrees who live in commuting distance to the university.
WeWork, the $1-billion-value co-working space company, has opened a school in Chelsea as it prepares to move into its new mid-Manhattan headquarters. And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has recently expressed interest in reforming the education system through the creation of a school in which—brace yourself—“the child is the customer.”
But Amazon says it has no plans for the children of HQ2 employees to “be the customers” at a company-oriented school in Long Island City. The company has never offered site-specific schooling in Seattle, and told CityLab it has no plans to do so in either New York or Arlington, despite the unique difficulties of the New York City school system.
Still, given how thoroughly Amazon has transformed the neighborhoods that surround its headquarters in Seattle, the concern shared by many Long Island City residents is understandable, not least because so little is known about what HQ2 will actually look like. Local politicians and advocates were kept in the dark until Amazon made its decision public, and the deal agreement reveals little about what the headquarters proper will look like, or what its plans are for other development in the surrounding area.
No one yet knows whether HQ2’s arrival will be a cataclysmic event or a gradual expansion. But for parents and students in Queens’s already strained school system, the devil may turn out to be in the details.
“We’re not even sure what we’re rallying against,” said the community education council co-president, Deborah Alexander, “because there are just no specifics at all.”