As private Schools expand, the lobbyists line up news

| 15 Sep 2015 | 11:03

Several private schools in Manhattan have spent nearly a half-million dollars in the past two years with New York’s top lobbying firms, all in an effort to help win approval for construction projects in some of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods.

Since January 2014, three schools in Manhattan’s Upper East and Upper West sides will have spent $473,000 with firms such as Capalino & Company, Geto de Milly, and Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel LLP, according to lobbying disclosure forms.

These firms target local elected officials and city agencies, such as the Dept. of Buildings and the Board of Standards and Appeals, as well as community boards and local residents.

Since April of last year, the Chapin School, a private all-girls K-12 school on the Upper East Side, has spent $225,000 with Geto de Milly and Capalino & Company in an effort to clear various hurdles in its bid to add three floors, including a glass encased gymnasium on the top floor, to its building on East End Avenue and 84th Street. Residents of Yorkville near the school have criticized around-the-clock construction over the summer.

The work involved interior excavation and renovation of the basement for the construction of cafeteria space. But residents complain of incessant construction noise and internet and phone outages they attribute to the work at the school. They also point to the fact that Chapin last expanded in 2006, and accuse the school of being indifferent to the community’s concerns.

“It’s incredible that Chapin is allowed to do 24/7 work, including all day this past Labor Day,” said Lisa Paule, who lives in the immediate vicinity of Chapin. “Neighbors are understandably outraged by what is going on.”

Paule said work being done in the basement for the cafeteria at Chapin also involves infrastructure work to shore up the building in preparation for the expansion, “before the BSA has even approved the variances to enable that.”

Paule said the amount of lobbying money Chapin has spent to streamline its effort is “appalling ... This is all for the benefit of a graduating class of around 43 teenage girls, some of whom don’t even live in this area.”

Chapin maintains that the school is no longer big enough to meet students’ needs, and the expansion will not translate to increased enrollment. They also point to an informational website and hotline they set up that Yorkville residents can call if they have any issues with the ongoing construction as evidence of their commitment to community comity. Chapin said round-the-clock construction was necessary over the summer to complete the work in the basement before the start of the school year. The school is seeking a series of zoning variances to add the three floors onto their existing eight-story building at 100 East End Avenue.

Chapin spent $120,000 with Geto de Milly last year and in 2015 targeting Community Board 8. Michele de Milly, a principal at Geto de Milly and the primary lobbying officer listed on Chapin’s disclosure forms, said private schools typically do not have in-house expertise with land use or governmental procedures, and often do not have the capacity to engage in the necessary broad-based community outreach required by the city’s public review process.

“As a result, schools must assemble the necessary team of outside experts to work closely with them to develop their programs for new academic spaces, design plans, prepare government applications, assist in guiding projects through the lengthy public review process, and develop the best approaches to construction,” she said. “Moreover, all of this must be accomplished under a highly constrained school schedule while ensuring minimal impact on neighbors.”

CB8 chair Jim Clynes said there’s nothing untoward about a lobbying firm working on behalf of a private school looking to expand, and that all meetings with Chapin’s representatives are open to the public.

“Lobbyists do come before our committee meetings and full board meetings to advocate on behalf of their clients,” said Clynes. “There is nothing sinister with being a lobbyist. Every cause, whether it be corporate, nonprofit, political or religious, needs someone to advocate on their behalf. Lobbyists are those advocates that promote, navigate and cheer lead on behalf of a cause.”

Across town on the Upper West Side, the Trinity School is spending nearly $200,000 on lobbying for an expansion project to add two stories to its building on West 91st Street. The plan was rejected by CB7, who did not return a request for comment, but approved by the city earlier this year.

Trinity did not return a request for comment. The school has hired both Geto de Milly and Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel LLP, and previously hired Capalino & Company in 2013 and 2010.

Collegiate, on W. 78th Street, will have spent $49,000 from 2014 to the end of this year on lobbyists in its bid to relocate to West 61st Street. The school, which did not return a request for comment by press time, works mainly with Capalino & Company.

All three schools - Chapin, Trinity and Collegiate – have targeted city council members and other elected officials, city agencies and local community boards.

A spokesperson for Upper West Side Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, who has worked with both the Trinity School and the Collegiate School on their projects, as well as Community Board 7, said it’s common for private schools to hire lobbyists to advance their interests.

“They bring their lobbyists to meetings that the school administrators have with Helen. Similarly, our office is in regular contact with residents impacted by construction projects; Helen meets with them and helps organize community meetings,” said spokesperson Stephanie Buhle. “She is neither swayed nor deterred in her advocacy and support for community residents or parents of all our students [who are] around the table.”

Ryan Singer, a spokesperson for the Board of Standards and Appeals, said lobbying firms like Capalino & Company and Geto de Milly play peripheral roles in building applications with the agency, and that a school’s land use attorney is usually leading the discussions with the BSA.

“I cannot say with certainty what the main role of a lobbying firm is for projects at the BSA but the community board does provide a recommendation to the [BSA] and testimony from council members, borough presidents and other elected officials can be helpful and informative,” said Singer. “Lobbyists could be helpful in managing that side of the process. Land use attorneys, architects and school administrators are typically the lead actors in BSA actions involving schools.”