If the contentious school zone debate happening on the Upper West Side these days has taught us anything, it's this: School zones change. So even if you buy—or rent—in the heart of a prime public school zone, you could find your building cut out of the "approved" boundaries, your kid sent to a different public school, and your property values threatened.
Here's what's happening on the West Side: To alleviate overcrowding at the much-beloved P.S. 199 on West 70th Street (this year, almost 100 zoned Kindergarteners were waitlisted), a rezoning has been proposed that would redirect some of the elementary school-aged kids previously zoned for the high-performing P.S. 199 to the relatively new P.S. 452 and the more problematic P.S. 191 on West 61st Street, which has been deemed "persistently dangerous" by the state. (As of yesterday, the DOE announced it's delaying its decision).
Unsurprisingly, many parents are upset. So are condo and co-op owners (who may or may not have kids in the school). Nicole (who requested her last name not be used), a P.S. 199 parent and co-op owner in the neighborhood, told us that some of the most adamant opponents of the rezoning weren't public school parents. "They realize that this is a serious issue when it comes to property value," she says.
"For the people who would still be zoned for 199 it would mean their property values would go up, but for those outside of the zone, they go down."
Tracy, an Upper West Sider with a three-year-old, told us she's waiting to find out what happens with the P.S. 199 rezoning to buy a larger apartment in that area. (She now lives in a one-bedroom further uptown.) "I'm terrified of buying in a neighborhood and then getting zoned out," she says.
But, it's important to keep in mind that the Upper West Side's issue is an anomaly, says Clara Hemphill, founder of InsideSchools.org, an important resource for public school parents.
"Waitlists and rezoning affect a very small number of schools," she says. "Usually, if kids are waitlisted and bumped, they're offered spots in nearby schools that are often just as desirable."
And waitlists apparently tend to shrink drastically. "The hysterical waitlists that dominate headlines in March tend to evaporate by June," she says, as people choose other options for their kids.
"Principals often tell me that things open up drastically in August and September." (In the case of P.S. 199, the city added a dozen kindergarten seats in August to ease the waitlist, and by that time there were only about there dozen people on the waitlist, down from nearly 100.)
But if you'd rather avoid the "will they/won't they?" rezoning stress, here are some tips for buying (and even renting) in a school zone without finding yourself "boundaried" out:
- Research the school before you buy or rent. Call the parent coordinator—every school has one and they're usually listed on the school's website—and find out whether there were waitlists over the last few years and/or any talk of rezoning or new schools going up in the neighborhood. Google to see if there have been any articles about overcrowding in the school, but make sure the stories are recent.
- The groups that decide zoning are the the city's Community Education Councils (made up of public parents); there are 32 across the city and they each have their own websites with minutes posted. Read through them to see whether there's talk of rezoning.
- If you're dead-set on sending your child to one particular public elementary school, try to live as close to the building as possible. You're less likely to get zoned out if you're on the same street as the school, for example.
And if you've heard about people getting around rezoning by renting an inexpensive apartment to use as an office or some such additional space in a desired zone for a year, be forewarned that aside from the ethical issues this presents, schools are cracking down and checking into whether the applicants really live in their apartments more than ever.
And one small PSA for parents of kids starting Kindergarten in 2016: Registration forms will be available earlier this year—starting December 7—and the DOE is asking that you apply via Kindergarten Connect by January 15. If you live, or are looking to move, to one of the more desirable zones, we suggest you register earlier.