Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cuts to City Schools Go from 'Bad' to 'Horrid' by Beth Fertig - WNYC - News

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Back in March, when the city was still trying to get a handle on its education budget, City Councilman Robert Jackson noted that there were two different scenarios for the coming fiscal year: "bad" and "horrid."

Today, the education committee chairman said, there's only one: "horrid."

Jackson repeated that word at least nine times during the education committee's hearing on proposed budget cuts. He said the loss of $500 million in state aid would mean laying off 4,400 teachers, letting another 2,000 go through attrition, and eliminating almost 600 other support staffers and cafeteria workers. Which was why he wanted to know how Chancellor Joel Klein could justify hiring two more deputy chancellors who are each paid almost $200,000 a year, and giving raises to several more. He noted that there are now eight deputy chancellors.

Klein testified that one of those deputies is actually a new Chief Operating Officer and said the job is needed now more than ever because he's cut $38 million from central offices. The chancellor said another deputy is dealing with new schools and enrollment, and said the rest were given promotions. As for the raises, he called them "small adjustments" and said their salaries had been "out of line."

The chancellor insisted he had done all he could to protect classrooms from budget cuts. Several council members expressed great skepticism about his department's contracts with outside vendors at a time when it's projecting teacher layoffs. But Klein said the city retained a $5 million contract with The New Teacher Project to hire new teachers because there aren't enough with special education licenses to meet demand. And he said most of the city's other contracts are for special education services and busing that's legally mandated.

"People throw numbers around that are, I think, designed to confuse the discussion," he explained to Manhattan Councilwoman Margaret Chin.

Klein also defended cutting bus service for 7th and 8th graders, which isn't mandatory, and said that would save over $3 million. He said the students would qualify for free Metrocards (assuming the MTA doesn't cut that service), and told concerned council members from Staten Island that students could apply for yellow bus service if public transit wasn't convenient, or if they live near a dangerous intersection.

But with no budget yet from Albany, the city schools are projected to lose $500 million in state aid. And when you add growing enrollment, pension costs, and other services, Klein said that leaves a $750 million hole in the Department of Education's budget for 2010-2011. He predicted average class sizes would rise from the elementary to high school levels by anywhere from two to five students.

Klein again called on Albany to end the "last hired/first fired" law so that new teachers aren't automatically the first to go. He said low-income communities like the Bronx would lose the greatest number of new teachers, because they had hired so many recently, forcing principals to take more experienced teachers even if they aren't always the best. Councilman Jackson seemed exasperated by the Chancellor's pitch to change the law during his budget hearing. "If you want to change it, go to the table," he told the Chancellor, referring to contract talks with the union.

Those talks, by the way, are now at an impasse and a state-appointed mediator is meeting with the two sides.