November 17, 2008
When several families arrived at a Park Slope middle school for an evening basketball practice recently, they were surprised to find themselves locked out. The gym, they learned, had been closed without warning so that construction workers could make repairs. The basketball team couldn’t practice, kids were disappointed, and parents were frustrated.
Most parents would chalk the experience up as just one of the many small injustices of family life in the city. But for Sharon Greenberger, a Park Slope resident and mother of two, it was a professional learning experience.
Greenberger leads the city’s School Construction Authority, the agency that oversees the building of new buildings and the repairs work for the old ones. In recent years, that has become a daunting job. More and more children are being brought up in the city, leaving parents distraught that public school buildings might not have enough room to fit them. At the same time, the city’s aging stock of school buildings — most are at least 90 years old — has required extensive repairs. Greenberger is the woman charged with balancing demand for new schools against the need to maintain old ones, an acrobatic challenge that has only gotten harder as grim fiscal realities set in.
A starting goal she has set for herself since becoming president of SCA in 2006 is to improve communication. Reflecting on the canceled basketball practice, she said, “Had we [at SCA] figured that out and communicated it more effectively, it would have made a difference.”
Headquartered in a massive building that overshadows its Long Island City block, SCA in the not-so-distant past earned a reputation for corruption and opacity. But Greenberger, who like many top city officials is perpetually attached to her Blackberry, said she’s tried to bring more transparency to the agency. Under her watch, SCA has taken advantage of its Web site, publishing annual reports that used to be relegated to Community Board meetings directly online.
Greenberger’s degree is in design and urban planning, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But she also has a background in city politics. Before working at the SCA, she had perhaps the only other position that is equally politically prickly, directing New York University’s campus planning during a peak of its aggressive expansion within the city. Before that, she served as chief of staff to Dan Doctoroff, then the deputy mayor for economic development.
She said the lesson from those jobs was that an organization can’t be effective if it isn’t organized well on the inside. Under her supervision, the agency has gone through a complete internal review that has resulted in departments working together more effectively, she said.
Greenberger said this is the kind of work she loves: the operations side, implementing systems that “make sure we deliver what we’re supposed to.”
That’s fortunate, because SCA has spent the last four years barreling through a capital plan that promised to add 63,000 seats and included repairs at hundreds of schools. This past September, the agency completed 18 new school buildings, more than in any other recent year. “The volume of work and the quality at which we’ve performed it has really been extraordinary,” Greenberger said.
But the current economic crisis requires a slowdown in the pace of school construction, according to city officials. Last week, the city released its plan for school construction in the years 2010 to 2014, and it calls for only 25,000 new school seats and nearly $2 billion less in spending on capital projects.
Slowing down could be hard for Greenberger. Like a true perfectionist, Greenberger says the biggest downside of her job is having to disappoint people. Over the summer, she clocks 14-hour days as she supervises construction projects at hundreds of schools. Beginning this month, she’ll be spending at least a couple of nights each week appearing at meetings of Community Education Councils in different districts to discuss the new capital plan.
At those meetings, Greenberger is likely to hear from SCA’s vocal detractors, who have criticized the agency for everything from the number of seats it plans to build, to where it plans to locate new schools, to the way it reviews environmental conditions before breaking ground.
How does Greenberger handle the criticism? “I have a golden rule, and that’s that you can’t take anything personally,” Greenberger said. That’s a lesson she said she learned during her time at NYU and at City Hall.
Greenberger also draws a line between home and work. “Because I work so hard during the week, their schedules rule the weekend,” she said of her daughters, who attend MS 447 in Boerum Hill and Park Slope’s PS 107, from which her lawyer husband also graduated. Together, the family visits museums, attends sports events, and eats unusual foods in neighborhoods such as Koreatown. “They’re very good eaters,” Greenberger said about her daughters.
Being a mother gives Greenberger a special insight into how her work affects public school parents. And being a woman in a male-dominated field makes her sensitive to the issues faced by minority contractors who compete for city dollars, she said. Still, in an industry that has been slow to change, “people are surprised that I have this position,” Greenberger said.
But it’s getting schools built, not the barriers she’s broken, that makes Greenberger proudest. “The agency is delivering, and that speaks better than everything,” she said.