As the deadline for City Council approval of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s executive budget approaches, proposed cuts to city schoolshave drawn the ire of parents and educators around the city, forcing the Department of Education into a defensive scramble in recent weeks.
Citing budget shortfalls, the mayor has repeatedly warned city agencies over the last several months, to expect across-the-board budget cuts of around five percent. And as the mayor’s budget indicates, city schools, although they can expect smaller cuts in many cases, are no exception.
But critics say that a predicted budgetary shortfall — itself a source of contention — should not come at students’ expense, particularly when city schools will see an increase in roughly $664 million in new state and city money for the 2009 fiscal year.
According to the DOE, these increases, though welcome, are not adequate to meet increased operating costs. Recent public statements by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein put the estimated shortfall at roughly $299 million.
The debate has intensified in recent weeks as the city budget deadline approaches, and as the DOE has released preliminary numbers for how individual schools could be affected by the cuts.
Although the City Council budget deadline is not until July 1, the education portion — nearly a third of the overall budget — goes up for approval on June 2 by the city’s Panel for Education Policy, the sole body in charge of approving DOE measures on everything from school budgets to school curricula. Once the education portion of the bill is approved, a detailed school-by-school breakdown will go up for a second PEP vote before the whole thing is passed along to the City Council.
In recent weeks, Klein has sought to minimize the impact of those cuts, both in practice and in an aggressive public campaign.
Regarding a much touted increase in state funding of more than $600 million — part of this year’s state budget — Klein said in a media roundtable last week that only $535 million of that allocation actually goes to school operating budgets.
An additional $129 million in new money from the city brings the total of unrestricted new money for FY 2009 to $664 million.
Klein pointed out, however, that the DOE faced a rise in operating expenses of around $963 million, creating a roughly $299 million deficit.
About $200 million of that can be absorbed in what Klein has called cuts to “central and other non-school budgets” — which DOE spokeswoman Debra Wexler characterized as cuts to school support organizations and Tweed administration costs, among other cuts outside individual school operating budgets. She cited the reduction of yearly periodic assessments from five to four times a year, and a reduction in the frequency of Quality Reviews for high-performance schools as examples.
That leaves roughly $99 million in cuts that would necessarily be distributed across school operating budgets citywide. Klein has indicated that, under different circumstances, that could translate into a uniform, 1.4 percent cut across all city schools.
Making that 1.4 percent cut a reality, however, is a dubious prospect at present: a state law requiring that $63 million of that new state money — part of the state’s “Contracts for Excellence” (C4E) guidelines — be allocated to under-performing schools.
As a result, Wexler explained, struggling schools could actually see a budget increase of as much as 4 percent in some cases, while the city’s better-performing schools could face cuts as high as 6 percent — a discrepancy she said Klein had been working with Albany to rectify since January.
“What we’re hoping to do is to appeal to Albany to give us flexibility over that $63 million, not in how we spend it, but where, so it can go to any of our schools,” Wexler said. “That would allow us to bring the cuts to the hardest-hit of our schools down.”
Given the current education shortfall in the mayor’s budget, 107 of the best-performing schools in the city would sustain cuts of five percent or more under C4E regulations (excluding federal funds) many of which are among the DOE’s new, smaller schools, set to open in the fall.
Of those 107 schools, 24 are in Queens. Among them, with cuts expected at above 5.7 percent, are Queens High School for the Sciences at York College and York Early College Academy in Jamaica; The Academy for Excellence through the Arts, opening this fall in Forest Hills; and the Queens Collegiate: a College Board School, also opening this fall inside the Jamaica High School building.
Klein has been outspoken in encouraging state legislators to relinquish control over the $63 million in order to minimize the impact on better-performing schools.
“If this burden were spread out evenly, all schools would face a manageable 1.4 percent reduction,” Klein said in a statement. “But state guidelines require most of its ‘Contracts for Excellence’ funds to be spent in roughly half the city schools.”
His opposition to state control over C4E money has ignited a firestorm of criticism, however, from advocates who say it puts educators and parents in the unfair position of having to choose between inequitable cuts and short-changing special needs schools that were promised extra funding under C4E.
Chief among them is State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said in a statement that “instead of looking for ways to avoid keeping the promise to New York City’s schoolchildren, Chancellor Joel Klein should be fighting for the children and working to convince Mayor Bloomberg to provide promised city support to the schools.”
He added that, by providing $600 million in new aid this year, the state had kept its end of the bargain by granting additional funding for specific programs, including class size reduction (C4E funds), but that “the city does not want to keep its end of the bargain.”
Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, one of many groups critical of the Bloomberg administration cuts, said in a statement that the DOE had “turned the concept of equity on its head.”
Criticizing the notion that across-the-board cuts, whatever the level, were acceptable, he argued that “(Klein) wants to take state funds promised to the neediest schools and use it to plug the gap from the mayor’s education cuts. … The chancellor needs to level with the public school parents and admit that his proposed cuts are a result of the mayor’s budget and that these cuts will hurt educational quality.”
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, another advocacy group, also questioned the necessity of cuts of any kind. “The DOE is trying to pit parent against parent in the most despicable of ways,” she said in a statement. “The truth is there is no reason for any school to see budget cuts next year.”
She cited a recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office, which, in the language of the report, “project(s) no budget shortfalls in 2009 and 2010,” and a surplus of $4.6 billion by the end of the current fiscal year, despite short term problems from a slowing local economy.
“The truth is that the DOE would rather spend the limited proportion of state aid that’s supposed to be used for specific programs like reducing class size, especially in low performing schools, on their own misguided priorities — such as more no-bid contracts, private consultants and high stakes testing,” Haimson said.
Copies of the IBO report are available online at www.ibo.nyc.ny.us.