The Mount Vernon Board of Education has sued the city to overturn three new neighborhood zones that allow higher-density residential buildings.
New high-rise apartment buildings will create an influx of students, according to the lawsuit filed on June 21 in state Supreme Court, Westchester.
“The district cannot afford to build the schools required to properly educate the anticipated increase in students,” the lawsuit states.
The school board also states that tax abatement deals are shifting the burden to property owners who lack the financial means to absorb tax increases.
“The increase should be borne by the wealthy developers constructing the apartment buildings,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also names the city’s planning and community development department and Mayor Richard Thomas.
Thomas responded that the school district was designed for 12,000 students, but has fewer than 8,000 students, leaving significant room for growth. He said the district spends $30,000 per child, 163 percent more than the national average and 41 percent more than the average for New York state public schools.
“Are we receiving that level of value for our children? Perhaps the district should spend more energy improving its track record in education and less time in engaging in costly litigation with the city,” he said.
John Fava, a Mount Vernon resident and owner of a 14-unit apartment building near the Mount Vernon West train station, joined the school board in the lawsuit.
The petition does not explain why he is suing. However, landlords and small business operators have complained at public hearings that they are disadvantaged when big developers receive tax breaks.
The conflicts are happening as the school system is changing how it allocates 8,800 students among 17 buildings and creating less space for elementary schools.
Meanwhile, the city is fostering high-rise, mixed-use buildings in downtown, Mount Vernon West and the Third Street/Fourth Avenue corridor.
The city’s environmental impact study does not discuss the impact of higher-density zoning on the public schools, the lawsuit states.
The school board also said the city has undercounted the number of students it anticipates from new buildings, but even those numbers reveal the strain. Hamilton School, for example, serves Mount Vernon West, where the city projects 299 additional students.
“The Hamilton School cannot absorb a 299-student increase,” according to the lawsuit.
Higher density developments, and thus more students, according to the school district, are also being encouraged by deals with developers for payments in lieu of taxes. The lawsuit identifies PILOT agreements for The Enclave, The Modern, 30 Warren Place, 22 South West Street, 1 Bradford Road, MK Illumination USA, Hartley Park Towers, 115 S. MacQuesten Parkway and 1 N. Fulton Avenue.
“Developers have not only provided for the funding of studies supporting these zone changes,” the lawsuit states, “they also have funded the campaigns of city council members” so that they can “build bigger buildings with more units.”
Thomas said $300 million in market-rate residential development is going to bring enormous benefits to the city, revitalize neighborhoods, create high-quality homes and spur economic activity, improve the quality of life for residents and generate significant revenue.
“The city of Mount Vernon has and will continue to support the school district with the infrastructure that is needed and I remain committed to offering whatever help we can to ensure that the district is able to provide the highest quality education possible to every child in Mount Vernon,” Thomas said.
The school board also filed a lawsuit in December claiming that Thomas and the city’s Industrial Development Agency have concealed information about tax abatement deals and have prevented school officials from participating in the negotiations.
In the new case, the school board wants the court to invalidate the new zones, stop construction of projects approved under the new zoning, make the city redo its environmental analysis, direct the city to do a school capacity and utilization study and order the city to include the school district in the development of zoning and comprehensive plans.