Schools Chancellor Says Cuomo's Budget Cuts Are 'Unjust'

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black told Albany lawmakers Tuesday that governor Cuomo's proposed budget cuts will have a significant, direct impact on students and classrooms -- including teacher layoffs.

Black said the cuts add up to $1.4 billion -- a sum that is larger than the governor claims in part because the state is once again delaying the extra school aid it promised when it settled the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

"At this rate, a child entering kindergarten when the phase-in was originally supposed to begin will end up in high school before they see the city's fair share fully realized," Black said. "This is just unjust."

Black told reporters afterward the full funding was originally scheduled to come in 2012-13, and now it's been pushed out to 2016-17.

"So we're going to fight that very aggressively," she said.

The Cuomo administration insists that the cuts to New York City amount to only $579 million. Budget Director Robert Megna has said it was "unrealistic" for Mayor Bloomberg to assume it would get more funding given the state's financial situation. But Black argued in her testimony that the previous governor and both houses of the legislature passed a budget that would have given the city far more money, which is why she said the $1.4 billion cut is "not an arbitrary figure, or some tenuous pledge."

The battle over school aid is affecting school districts around the state. Education groups chanted "Don't kill CFE Governor Cuomo" just as Black sat down to testify. In an unusual move, Lieutenant Governor Robert Duffy was the first witness to address today's joint hearing of the assembly's Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees.

He said school districts could withstand a 9.4 percent overall reduction in state education aid without laying off teachers "whether that's finding efficiencies, using their unspent funds, freezing wages, or reducing administrator's salaries."

Duffy said the state is willing to send out teams to any district that needs help finding efficiencies.

Black told lawmakers that the city recognizes the state's precarious financial condition and is prepared to do its own part to shoulder the burden.

She repeated Mayor Bloomberg's call for pension reform. She also said the city could save money if the state changed the formula for textbooks and software aid. She proposed allowing the parents of special education students to be reimbursed for driving their children to school or taking taxis instead of riding yellow buses, adding that this would be presented to parents as an option not a requirement.

And she again urged lawmakers to end the "last in first out" law that would require new teachers to take the first hits during layoffs. The mayor has already estimated 6,000 teaching positions will be lost because of city cutbacks and said more will be necessary under Cuomo's proposal.

Black's appearance before so many lawmakers provided a public forum for them to question the new chancellor. State Senator Andrew Lanza of Staten Island asked if ending the seniority protection for teachers would save any money. Black said it was not a cost-cutting measure but a policy move aimed at keeping the best teachers. And Democratic Assemblyman Nick Perry of Brooklyn questioned her pointedly about the city's policy of phasing out failing schools. He mentioned PS 114 in Brooklyn, and said the city waited too long to remove its principal.

"That school in particular is a very difficult situation," she said, adding that the city is sending another team of people to PS 114 to take another look at the building.  "I'm not sure that we've done everything right along the way,"

She added, There are failing schools "that just need a fresh start."

Meanwhile, the United Federation of Teachers sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asking him to look into whether Panel for Educational Policy's vote earlier this month to close and phase-out 22 schools violates state law. The union claims the city ignored data from studies showing the schools attracted a high number of students who were low performing, had special needs or didn't speak English.

The city's Department of Education said the union misunderstood the studies, however. A spokesman said there are schools with similar populations that do a much better job, which is why it wants to gradually close the 22 schools. A vote will be held next month on 3 more schools the city wants to phase out.

The union's president, Michael Mulgrew, also testified against the budget cuts before the joint legislative committee in Albany on Tuesday, and Bloomberg's call for changing the seniority rules protecting experienced teachers.

"You're being sold a false bill of goods by the mayor," he said. Mulgrew proposed renewing the "millionaire's tax," or temporary personal income tax surcharge. He also said the Department of Education could save money by cutting back on consultants.